In a strange reversal of norms, the New York Rangers are deep into the summer with questions not about their defense but about their forward group. Questions at center surround a group that might have had one of the deepest forward units going into the season last year. Amazing how much one year can change things.
Let’s take a peek at what the Rangers current situation looks like down the middle.
Mika Zibanejad | Role: Number One Center
I’m not getting into the “what is a number one center” debate right now. Well, beyond this: There are 31 number one centers in the league, and last year 55 points made you one of them.
Zibanejad is wielding a fancy new five-year deal that he signed this summer, and now that he’s fully healthy the expectation is for him to continue playing at a career pace. If he levels out as a 60+ point player next year the Rangers will be very happy, and his ability to work the corners on the power play provide their own advantages. A healthy Zibanejad last year would have quieted a lot of the “he’s not that good” crowd that somehow emerged like an pimple this summer, but it also would have made him more expensive. With another year under his NHL career, a full year in the Rangers’ system, and a new dose of contract security we should see the best Zibanejad has to offer.
Kevin Hayes | Role: Top-Six Center
Hayes himself has been involved in a series of questions surrounding just how good he is, and if he’s worth the squeeze at this point. I find the latter to be totally ridiculous, and talked about it when we discussed this topic on last week’s podcast.
Hayes has seen something of a decline in even strength production in his three-year career, but a lot of the drop off we saw this past season had to do with Alain Vigneault trying to mold him into a two-way, shut-down center. It’s simply not a role Hayes is either designed for or capable of, and despite his struggles Vigneault never removed him from the role.
Hayes being moved back to the top-six (by necessity right now) is going to help open the floodgates of offense back up. In a contract year that might not be the best thing for the Rangers, but it will be a good problem to have. Hayes has always shown a remarkably ability to create his own chances (even in the role he was forced into last year he still created over 110 individual scoring chances at even strength) and if his luck was a little better his numbers would have been as well. Needless to say, talking about giving up on Hayes is insanity. He’ll most likely prove why this year.
David Desharnais | Role: 3rd Line Center (for now)
Desharnais inked a one-year deal this summer, shoring up some much needed center depth. The question is where on the depth chart he’s going to find himself. A lot of people saw him as a fourth line option who could add some offensive pop, but with the weeks melting away toward September, and no other center move in the wings it appears as though he’s locked into a third-line role.
This is an interesting (and worrisome) situation for the Rangers. In his article about the signing, Adam did a little research:
Desharnais, 30, had an off-year in 2016-2017, with just six goals and eight assists in 49 regular season games. A knee injury sidelined Desharnais at the mid-point of the season and hampered him beyond that. Nonetheless, his vitals look strong. His play improved after he got healthy and was traded to Edmonton. Over the prior five seasons, Desharnais averaged 15.3 goals and 31.9 assists per 82 games. His on-ice shot metrics are also strong over that period of time. Own the Puck as well as Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score model both rate Desharnais as a quality bottom-six center.
How quality of a center will depend on both his health, and his ability to adjust to the new team and system. The hope is the Rangers don’t have to lean on him too heavily for defensive help, but his offense might make him a perfect 3C if he runs on all cylinders. In the end, it’s a big risk for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, but one that might pay off.
J.T. Miller | Role: Potential 3rd Line Center
Moving Miller to center seems to be something everyone is at least partially agreeable towards. (We also discussed this on the podcast, for what it’s worth.) Miller has spent some time as a pivot, and while it wasn’t a complete disaster, it wasn’t exactly an amazing success, either.
The thing is: The Rangers have significantly weakened their forward offensive production with the Derek Stepan trade, and haven’t replaced all that much of it. Miller produced a career-high 56 points last year, and if he continues to grow into his comfort zone, can keep reaching even higher. (Note: this is why the bridge deal for him was such a mistake, but I digress.)
Moving Miller away from his sweet spot might strain his ability to provide the same offensive jolt he did last year, and that wouldn’t be ideal given the current landscape. Yes, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan “no longer tethered to Dan Girardi” McDonagh will help alleviate some of Stepan’s lost offense (if not all of it and more) but there will be added pressure on the forwards to do their part. Miller was one of the few (relatively) constant forces last year in the regular season. Risking that might not be the smartest idea.
Lias Andersson | Role: Maybe Nothing, Maybe Something
Andersson impressed the Rangers brass in prospect camp, then impressed again in the World Juniors Showcase Series a week ago. He was touted for his polished play when he was picked, and we might be getting a really good look at it this summer.
Andersson has a shot at making the Rangers out of camp. Before August I would have called it an outside shot at best, but the Rangers are in love with him and they seem to be stagnant on the center front. Andersson wouldn’t thrive long term in a 4th line defensive role, but if Vigneault was willing to be patient with a kid, giving him 3rd line duties might not be a total disaster. Remember, this is a kid who has played tow seasons with men in the SHL -- which for my money is the second best hockey league on the planet. Sure, you’d rather him not be forced into the role, but if the Rangers don’t screw with him (read: throw him in and out of the lineup or give him five minutes a night) there’s a chance an NHL season could be the best thing to happen to him.
There’s risks here, too, but right now the Rangers don’t have a ton of options.
The Mystery Box | It can be anything, even a top center and you know how much we’ve wanted one of those!
The Mystery Box can be anything. A trade. A callup. Anything.