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Initial Line Combinations Create Mixed Situations for Rangers’ Youngsters

With a probable opening lineup set, some young players are set up for success, while another may not be.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The preseason is all about experimentation. Put players in different scenarios and see what results. Now that rosters has been trimmed in preparation for the start of the regular season, head coaches will now start seeking out stability and cohesion. David Quinn put out his first lineup at practice today and told the media that he’d like to have more consistency in his lines this season. Here is what he rolled out in preparation for Thursday’s opener against Winnipeg.

What immediately sticks out is the third line, which is a combination of players that have seen practically no time together. Does Brett Howden belong in the NHL right now? That’s debatable at best. Per Evolving-Hockey, Howden was the 10th-worst forward at even strength in the entire NHL last season by Wins Above Replacement, and while his preseason was fine, he didn’t vociferously force himself onto the roster, either.

On the premise that Howden deserves to be on the roster, Quinn’s decision to put him between Vlad Namestnikov and Jesper Fast is an astute move. Howden was an effective driver of offense last year. He proved adept at carrying the puck, setting up as a playmaker in the offensive zone, and chipping in the occasional goal from the slot. His 21 even-strength points in 66 games is not bad for a 20-year-old playing depth minutes on a shoddy offensive team.

Where things went wrong for Howden was on the defensive side. As this chart from Hockey Viz shows, the Rangers were greatly pervious when Howden was on the ice last season (red is high volume of shots).

Placing Howden with Namestnikov and Fast is going to force him to work on his defensive game while giving him the best possible support system to do so. The two wingers have enough skill to serve as rallying partners for Howden and keep the opposition honest, but there’s no doubting that this line will be used in shutdown situations; the top-six will get the bulk of offensive shifts.

Howden is not good enough offensively to get by on scoring alone. If he is to have a future in the National Hockey League - particularly at center - he’s going to have to shore up his defensive game and become a two-way player. Last season he spent a lot of time with either Jimmy Vesey or Ryan Strome, who are both poor defensive players as well. This created multiple weak points in the structure. Comparatively, Fast and Namestnikov will be pillars who always hit their spots and can even clean up some messes. Howden could not ask for better circumstances to improve his defensive game, and if he fails to do so then it’s frankly time for the team to move him to the wing or Hartford.

If opportunity and support are the key to unlocking the best in Howden, then it’s difficult to understand what the plan is with Lias Andersson, who is set up to get neither. Both in Hartford as well as during his post-deadline stint with the Rangers, Andersson proved to be an adequate defensive player, and one would expect he will get even better with age. However, his offensive output has lacked. Both in the Swedish Hockey League as well as the World Junior Championship, Andersson proved he has some scoring ability that hasn’t quite carried over to North America yet.

It doesn’t seem sensible that he’d make a breakthrough on the fourth line, and particularly this fourth line. Brendan Lemieux is a competent NHL forward and good for what he is. He’ll cover his point, forecheck, contribute to a cycle, and chip in a few ugly goals around the crease. As a 12th forward, that’s a pretty decent player to have. But is that someone who will be a catalyst for Andersson? It’s hard to imagine so. The same holds true for Brendan Smith, who the team has convinced itself is an NHL right-winger. Even in the best case, Smith will be a similar grinder who keeps the puck below the goal line and doesn’t offer much else.

Gorton justified the demotions of Chytil and Kravtsov by asserting that they did not crack the top-nine and needed more minutes than they could get in New York. Fair enough. What does that mean for Andersson, though? Either he too will be playing limited minutes, or the team will contradict itself and play this iteration of the fourth-line way too many minutes, cutting into the time of three far superior lines. This is an admittedly complicated puzzle to figure out, and the coaching staff sees things in practice that the general public does not have access too. Nonetheless, even if these three manage to provide competent fourth-line minutes, it’s difficult to imagine the situation benefitting Andersson’s long-term development.

Finally, Fox and Hajek were foreshadowed as a pairing during training camp, and the coaching staff has made it official for opening night. This duo’s strengths and weaknesses complement each other well. Fox is a dynamic puck mover who reads the game at an outstanding level, but lacks foot speed and strength. Hajek, meanwhile, is a smooth-skating shutdown defenseman with the vigor to win physical battles and brain to time his defensive actions, but is prone to poor decisions with the puck. At least in theory, Hajek will be able to defer to Fox whenever possible in possession, while Fox will be able to take chances knowing that he has a partner capable of suffocating fires.

Much of this analysis is conceptual in nature. One can use evidence to predict how certain combinations might play out, but ultimately nobody will know for sure until the games happen. It’s a long season with a lot of time to try things, make mistakes, and make adjustments. Not to mention that there will be hot streaks, cold streaks, injuries, trades, call-ups, and other circumstances that will force changes to the lineup. How the lineup exists now will likely be unrecognizable compared to what it will look like on Game 82. In any case, it’s still worth considering how its current standing might drive or hinder the developments of the team’s many talented but inexperienced players.