The New York Rangers finalized their lineup to start the year, a decision that always comes with some type of commentary. This go around the Rangers really created topics to talk about ... so let’s do just that — since this is a blog and that’s what it’s here for.
The First Line
Not much to talk about here. Props to David Quinn for doing the right thing and putting together a group that should play well with one another. This was an easy decision to make, yes, but it was also one of the most important ones. Pavel Buchnevich and Artemiy Panarin already seem to have instant chemistry, and Mika Zibanejad’s solid all-around game adds something to the overall dynamic of the group. This will be fun.
Putting your 2nd overall pick with ... Ryan Strome
I know the people who yelled about “bloggers taking too much stock in practice lines” are shocked that Quinn skating Strome as the 2C in various practices and preseason games turned into Strome starting the season as the 2C, but you could have seen this coming a mile away. If nothing else, this completely reinforces the reality that this organization views Strome as part of the solution and didn’t try very hard to move him over the summer. That’s spilled milk now, sadly, and that trade value has also likely been mopped up.
Is it possible Strome does well here? I suppose so. Kaapo Kakko can be more of a play-maker when he has to be, although you’d think Chris Kreider is going to get a fair amount of those looks. I do love the possibilities with Kreider and Kakko, specifically Kreider using his speed to open up the defense and Kakko being able to bull in a china shop his way around the zone.
Strome is really where this becomes a concern, since Kreider will probably be utilized as the streaking forward through the zone during breakouts, and when Kakko isn’t carrying the puck on his stick the center will need to do a lot of that creating. Last year Strome created almost all his offense with the Rangers by scoring, and did little in the way of distribution. At even strength he recorded just 10 assists, and only seven of them were primary. His possession numbers aren’t anything to look twice at, and among regular players last year only Brett Howden and Cody McLeod had a worse relative expected goals for %. Putting Strome, who was really only noticeable when he scored, between two guys who could use a more architect-type passer doesn’t make much sense aside from this fallacy that he’s been a solid player for the Rangers who drives offense.
The big decisions feel like they were made before camp opened
Quinn and company talked about how this camp in particular was a difficult one to get through because of all the tough decisions that needed to — and then were — made. With so many kids vying for potential roles on Broadway you can probably sympathize with Quinn there — especially because he does seem to take a genuine interest in his players’ success.
That said, I can’t shake this feeling the bigger decisions we are talking about were made back at the beginning of September. Supposedly the 2C role was”Chytil’s to lose,” but you can certainly question that being the mentality when you look at the guys Chytil played with.
In three preseason games here were his top five line partners in order from most played with to least: Kravtsov (who was never up for a second line role), Strome (who, again, was fighting with him for the 2C role), Chris Kreider (legit second line chance here), Jesper Fast (again, no real second line shot), and then Zibanejad (legit second line chance). You’d think Quinn would have at the very least given Chytil a full shot with Kakko and Kreider since he knew those two were going to be on the second line. As things finished, Chytil and Kakko didn’t play a second with one another in the preseason.
Brett Howden, on the other hand, played in just two preseason games; which indicates the coaching staff didn’t need to get a good look at him because they knew what they had. (I’ll get to why I have an issue with Howden making the team in a minute ...)
On the flip side, Andersson played in four games, getting the most time with Kravtsov, Di Giuseppe, Strome, Namestnikov, and Lemieux — which fits pretty well into the 3C role he’s supposedly taking over. Andersson shouldn’t even be in this category really, since he was one of the better kids in September and earned this role on the team, but it’s worth noting the Rangers seemed to have him penciled into the 3C role when they gave Strome the 2C spot. Speaking of ...
Do as I say, not as I do?
Once the final decisions were made the big talking points were obviously focused around Kravtsov and Chytil. Mike and I talked about the dynamic of having a kid be good enough for 75 NHL games in one year, and then going down to the AHL in the next on Ep. 159 of the podcast here.
Both Quinn and Jeff Gorton talked about it being a “developmental” move to send both down, but Gorton expanded this thought by shedding light on the situation was that if one or both weren’t good enough for the top six the organization would rather them get bigger minutes in Hartford. The logic is there to an extent on paper, but beneath the surface if — as Quinn suggests below — the two wouldn’t have gotten regular minutes in the NHL it makes a ton of sense. (Argue the logic of that elsewhere, since it appears to be the reality as of this moment.)
That said, this poses an interesting outlook for both Howden and Andersson. I’m going to ignore Andersson as of right now, since it’s true that he’s not in the top six, I think he fought his way into the 3C role and it’s going to be a good spot for him — presuming he stays there. Chytil is a far more offensively gifted player, and I can see why the team would want him developing in Hartford after they made the error of not giving him at least a month or two in the NHL at the 2C role.
That said, you can’t say the above about Chytil and Kravtsov and then be fine with Howden playing on the fourth line. His metrics on defense showed nothing to insinuate he’s qualified to be a fourth-line center, and if Chytil and Kravtsov are looked at as high-ceiling players who need minutes to thrive and develop what does it say about Howden? Howden should be looked at as a higher level prospect for the Rangers, someone who could probably reach a second-line center tier if things go right. Force-feeding him a two-way role on the fourth line doesn’t feel like the best way to get there, especially since that’s not looked at as good enough for others. It’s also not great that him and Andersson will be flipping that role — at least from early looks at lines — since I can’t imagine there’s many minutes to go around there.
Boo Nieves would have been a perfect player to take the fourth-line role at that logic, relegating Howden to Hartford where he could season his game. Instead, Nieves will start his season with Hartford, and the Rangers will have one of their upper level forward prospects toiling on the fourth line. Potentially playing with Micheal Haley (more on him in a minute, too). As it stands Andersson will be put with Brendan Lemieux and Greg McKegg because the organization didn’t want Chytil, Kravtsov, or both on the third line. I’m not sure I get that, especially since there’s little to no real expectations this year.
Even IF the team required Strome as the 2C, I don’t think this ...
Panarin — Zibenejad — Buchnevich
Kreider — Strome — Kakko
Chytil — Andersson — Kravtsov/Howden
Lemieux — Namestnikov — Fast
... would be a bad look. You’d need to shelter the hell out of the third line from the jump, but that fourth line can handle a more defensive role to make up for it. The second line would hinge on whether or not Strome could swing things, but you’d at least have options there. If the team was adamant about Howden being a center then he goes to Hartford. They were fine with Chytil at wing last year, and I’m not against having a guy like McKegg as a 13th forward to step in as needed. Then again, I’m not the coach, so instead we’re getting:
Panarin — Zibenejad — Buchnevich
Kreider — Strome — Kakko
Lemieux— Andersson — McKegg
Namestnikov— Howden — Fast
You tell me which of those two you’d rather have.
We’re testing Hartford’s infrastructure early
John Davidson made it a point the moment he got into the Presidential Suite to revamp Hartford — which desperately needed a makeover — starting with a new, shiny, actually useful coaching staff. The team is going to put Hartford to the test, especially since it was so bad at the AHL level they intentionally kept key prospects from extended stays down there when they could help it.
With an influx of talent coming through the pipelines, and prospects soon to be graduated into the professional system, this needed to be fixed sooner rather than later. The Rangers went out of their way to bring in veterans, and now they’re sending down key prospects from Chtyil to Shesterkin.
If the Rangers didn’t get Hartford right, they’re putting a lot of kids who they would expect to be impact players for the organization moving forward in a bad situation. A few (Alexandar Georgiev and Andersson specifically) made it out without any issues, but it’s hard to imagine a full year in a mess will do anyone any good.
The good news? The team took a very aggressive approach with cleaning up the mess, and I would assume the organization has put everyone on the same page. I would expect things to be at least serviceable, if not fixed altogether.
On some level you can pass off his inclusion as a “fine” 13th forward — someone who won’t have their development hurt by not playing for weeks at a time and is fighting for his hockey life so he’ll always work hard and be willing to do anything. On the other hand, there are dozens of those players available at the end of every summer, and almost all of them can actually do valuable things on the ice aside from fight.
Brendan Lemieux was acquired for Kevin Hayes last year, along with a first-round pick which was ultimately sent back to Winnipeg in the Jacob Trouba trade, and his entire purpose is to provide all the things Haley will bring to the table along while actually being able to play hockey. There is no reason to justify Haley being in this lineup, under any circumstances. It’s ten times worse when the organization is — rightfully — icing Lemieux every game.
This also goes back to the point at the beginning of the article: You can mock the people who voice concerns about what look like innocuous moves all you want — and many are already doing just that with Haley since he’s “only the extra forward” — but that was the same thing that happened with Tanner Glass and the next thing you knew he was playing for Hayes in a playoff game. It was the same thing said about McLeod’s acquisition and he ended up playing a big role that year. It was the same thing being said about Strome floating as the 2C in practice and now he’s the actual 2C. Haley is here because Quinn wants him here, because he likes what he brings to the table, because he views him — on at least a small level — as part of the solution. That should scare the hell out of you.
Sure, he can be thrown to the minors without a cap hit, but with the team as close to the roof of the salary cap as they are, his $700K contract is an enormous red flag. They really wanted him around, and that’s scary.
Again, let’s give Quinn some credit. Putting Jacob Trouba with Brady Skjei happened from the start, as it should have. Skjei already looks better with a competent partner on his side, and Trouba might be surprised to see what Skjei’s skating and agility can open up.
Tony DeAngelo re-upping, Adam Fox making the team, and Trouba’s acquisition give the Rangers a fair amount of firepower at the back, and it should allow for some fun combinations on the power play (more on that in a bit, too).
The question really becomes who Marc Staal gets partnered with long term. I will assume Brendan Smith is the odd man out on most nights — Fox and Libor Hajek didn’t make the team to sit in the press box — which leaves him as the only regular “grenade” on defense that needs to be dealt with. We didn’t get a great look at the defensive pairings because DeAngelo’s grandfather passed away and he wasn’t at practice, but that will be interesting to see.
After a rough start to camp, Georgiev did everything he had to do to keep his job. He played really well behind Henrik Lundqvist, and with his NHL resume there was no reason to push Shesterkin into the NHL without any AHL time. I have a feeling this situation is going keep playing as the year goes on and the Rangers have decisions to make, but Georgiev earned the backup role (which is really a modified starter role) out of the gate.
Hank, by the way, looked like peak Hank all September.
The Power Play
Early looks at this as well, but here’s what the two groups look like as of this writing:
Kakko not on the first power play unit, which is Trouba, Zibanejad, Panarin, Kreider, and Buchnevich. Second PP is Fox, Skjei, Kakko, Lemieux, and Strome. #NYR— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) September 30, 2019
Let’s start with the good: I know you’re instinct is to bite a chew toy at Kakko not being on the top group, but that first unit is downright lethal. Kreider acting as the net-front presence will mesh perfectly with Zibanejad and Trouba firing cannons from the outside, and Panarin and Buchenvich to help stir the drink. There’s not a flaw to be seen with that group of five, at all.
The second unit is harder to gauge because DeAngelo was out for personal reasons. Then again, DeAngelo would likely replace Skjei, and the issues with that group is the forwards. Lemieux could have a case for being the net-front presence, but him and Strome being out there doesn’t ooze confidence. Strome will likely be the trigger on that unit, at least for what doesn’t come from the point, but I’m not sure how well that will work. I wouldn’t mind Andersson getting some looks as the net guy there — since a slew of his offense in the SHL came from the blue paint.
That said, the first unit is so good, that they should be soaking up most of the power play time anyway.
This one is simple, just something for you all to keep in mind:
Just as an aside: currently only 1 #NYR contract is slide-eligible: Kaapo Kakko. And that's not happening, obv... So literally everyone else, including Kravtsov, is burning a contract year no matter what level they're playing in 2019-20.— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) September 24, 2019