Somewhat surprisingly, Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault announced on the first day of training camp that J.T. Miller would start the season at center. In doing so, he concluded one of the preseason’s biggest storylines before anyone even took part in a so much as a skating drill.
Given the state of affairs at center, it perhaps is the right move. Nonetheless, Miller’s move to center means a spot needs to be filled on the wing. That could prove problematic. Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Pavel Buchnevich, Michael Grabner, and Jimmy Vesey should fill up the top-three lines at wing to start the season. That leaves two spots alongside David Desharnais (presumably) on the fourth line.
Jesper Fast, who is the golden standard for fourth-line wingers, underwent hip surgery in June. The Rangers are projecting that he will be ready to play in late October. As we saw with Oscar Lindberg last season following his own hip surgery, it might not be until 2018 that Fast is truly back to full strength. Whatever the case, the Rangers will be without Fast to start the season. With him in the lineup, there’s still one forward spot to fill. Without him, there are two.
The only remaining incumbent from last season is Matt Puempel. To his credit, he did a pretty good job of putting the puck in the net when the Rangers used him last season. Outside of that, though, his contributions were meager. He was a liability away from the puck and isn’t a particularly apt passer. Maybe he is passable as an extra forward, and perhaps he puts everything together this season. This is not something the Rangers can rely on, though. Puempel is not someone a contending team should be penciling in as a regular in the lineup. Yet, that’s where the Rangers find themselves right now even with a healthy Fast.
This sets up a fantastic opportunity for a prospect to step up and win the job. Unfortunately for the Rangers, NHL-ready forwards is the weakest aspect of their prospect pool. Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil are similar to J.T. Miller in that they play all three forward positions. It would not be surprising to see the Rangers give one of those players a nine-game regular season trial period before his entry-level contract kicks in. At a minimum, that could patch things up until Fast comes back while also giving a key prospect a valuable development experience. Asking two 18-year-old’s to step into the NHL lineup for a contender is a big ask, though, and the Rangers have to look towards the long-term as well; would limited minutes at a level they might not be ready for hurt their development?
Cristoval “Boo” Nieves and Vinni Lettieri are the other prospects in the mix. Both played on the wing often in college hockey and are in their mid-20s; there isn’t the same concern about harming their development that there is with Andersson and Chytil. However, both are fringe prospects. Nieves dealt with injuries and inconsistent performance all of last season, and Miller’s announced move to center before the coaches even looked at Nieves in camp doesn’t suggest that the Rangers are particularly confident in him. Lettieri is a great skater and is accountable away from the puck, but hardly moved mountains in the NCAA and has yet to establish himself at the pro level. Though his upside is limited, he could be a safe fill-in option in the way that Marek Hrivik was for two seasons.
There are two veteran forwards in camp on tryouts, though neither should inspire any confidence. Bobby Farnham and Andrew Desjardins are the type of depth forwards the Rangers have fallen victim to time-and-time again. Desjardins is not an NHL-caliber player but has survived relevancy on his ability to win faceoffs and punch people once in a while. Farnham also fights people, and had an Aaron Voros-esque fluke run of goals for the Devils two seasons ago. Neither belong in the NHL, even in the press box, and would anchor the fourth line.
The Rangers could make a trade. The other notable preseason story is the logjam the Rangers have on defense. Could the Rangers send Nick Holden to a team that has a surplus of depth forwards? It is also a bit curious that they haven’t signed Daniel Winnik, who is on a tryout with the Minnesota Wild and has been an extremely dependable two-way forward on contending teams the last few seasons. Ditto for P.A. Parenteau. Jaromir Jagr and Danis Zaripov, a KHL forward looking to play in the NHL this season, are both available as free agents.
The Rangers do not have elite forward talent that can make sub-optimal depth forgivable. Four robust lines are requisite for success this season, and while they don’t need the answers immediately, they will soon. At least one, if not two, forwards will need to be added to the lineup. If it’s not one of the prospects, then the Rangers will have to find answers externally. Ultimately, the Rangers will be fine as long as the forward group achieves mise en place by the trading deadline. Still, it sure wouldn’t hurt if they could find some solutions sooner rather than later.