In just a few months the New York Rangers will have one of the youngest lineups, if not the youngest lineup in franchise history. Of course, the headliners of that group are rookie wingers Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov. Together, they have the potential to become staples in the Rangers top-six forward group for the foreseeable future.
Either Kakko or Kravtsov — or potentially both of them — could feature on the first line next season with Mika Zibanejad. Regardless of who they skate with, or who the Rangers sign or don’t sign on July 1, they should both have an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a regular role in the top-six next season. The same cannot be said of some of the Rangers other young forwards.
Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden were all rookies last season. They’re also all natural centers. Together, that trio will compete for the role of second line pivot with returning veterans Ryan Strome and Vlad Namestnikov.
Strome and Namestnikov are both on expiring contracts, which essentially makes them band-aids until the team can find and/or develop other forwards to fill their roster spots in the top-nine. With Kakko and Kravtsov now in the mix, David Quinn should be itching to see if his one of his sophomore centers is ready to step up into a bigger role. With that being said, Chytil, not Andersson or Howden, appears to be the best fit — at least on paper.
Last October, Blueshirt Banter’s Shayna Goldman wrote a piece for The Athletic about Chytil’s play and positions in the first month of the season. She cited other players, including Tyler Seguin, who started their NHL career at wing because of a logjam at center and other factors.
Chytil, who was drafted as a center, played primarily at wing last season. With four veterans on the roster capable of playing center — Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, Namestnikov, and Strome (who replaced Ryan Spooner) — it didn’t take long for Quinn to move Chytil to wing. Although, it is important to note that Chytil started the season centering the third line with Fast and Ryan Spooner on his wings, and he shifted back to center after moving to the wing a few times during the season.
It’s uncommon for rookies to transition smoothly into a top-six center role in either the year that they are drafted or the year after. As it turns out, Howden was one of just five rookie centers in the league who took more than 500 faceoffs at 5-on-5 in 2018-19; Chytil took just 159. However, Chytil did see a noteworthy amount of ice time compared to his rookie peers. Among the rookie forwards who played in 40 or more games last season, Chytil’s 13:47 TOI/GP ranked 10th, behind Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars.
It goes without saying that there is a lot more to playing the center position than winning faceoffs, but it is a significant part of the position. Of the 23 rookies who took at least 175 draws in all situations last season, Chytil ranked 20th in faceoff percentage; Andersson ranked 11th (44.2 FO%) and Howden ranked sixth (48.6 FO%). Chytil’s struggles on the dot could have also influenced Quinn to move him to the wing, but the youngster deserves another crack at it.
Chytil transitioning to center next season would be a major coup for the Rangers in their rebuild. The same can be said for Andersson, who also deserves a fresh start at camp and an opportunity to prove himself above a fourth line role. In an ideal scenario, the Rangers could have Zibanejad, Chytil, Andersson, and Nieves as their pivots next season. But a lot can happen in free agency and in training camp that could derail that.
If Chytil isn’t ready for the responsibilities that come with playing center against top-six competition, he shouldn’t be thrown to the wolves. With that being said, Quinn was brought in to coach the Rangers because he excels at developing young players. Part of his job is getting Chytil and Andersson ready to assume bigger roles and more responsibilities.
It’s no secret that depth at the center position is vital to a team’s success. For that reason alone, it’s in the Rangers best interest to give Chytil every opportunity to center either the second or third line.
All data courtesy of NHL.com, naturalstattrick.com, and Corsica.hockey.