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Rangers Need to Stick With Kids on Top Line

Head coach Gerard Gallant stumbled into a winning combination.

St Louis Blues v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It only took a month, but New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant is finally putting the team’s recent lottery draft picks back into the top six — for now at least.

What’s even more promising is that both Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko are not only in the top six, but on the top line with number-one center Mika Zibanejad. Gallant made the switch late in a lackluster second period of the club’s eventual 6-4 win over the St. Louis Blues — a win that was driven by the newly-formed top line in the third period.

For about a month, Gallant had broken up the Rangers’ previous top two lines which had featured Kakko and Lafrenière as the two right wings. Prior to that, the Rangers had been playing strong underlying hockey but were not seeing consistent scoring results in a small sample. After a stretch of underwhelming play that lasted for an even smaller sample (not even two full games), Gallant acted quickly to shake things up. Since then, the Rangers have seen a slippage in their play and have struggled to put together a winning streak.

On Monday night against St. Louis, the Rangers fell into another one of their too-frequent lulls in the second period, personified by poor back-checking from Barclay Goodrow and Chris Kreider on the Blues’ goal that put them ahead 4-3 at the time. It was shortly after that point that Gallant demoted Kreider and moved Kakko and Lafrenière off of Goodrow’s line and up to the top line with Zibanejad.

If a poor play is what it took to finally spark the change, then so be it. Gallant finally stumbled into a trio that he needs to ride, even through inevitable ups and downs. Doing so will not only help the Rangers in the short-term — as it did when that line created the tying and go-ahead goals in the third period, with Lafrenière scoring the latter — but it will also be critical for the development of two players whom the Rangers need to become franchise cornerstones.

NHL: NOV 06 Red Wings at Rangers Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, I called for a return to the previous top two lines of Kakko with Kreider and Zibanejad, and Lafrenière with Vincent Trocheck and Artemiy Panarin. I didn’t think Gallant would ever elevate both Kakko and Lafrenière to play with Zibanejad, but now that he has, it’s something that needs to remain in place. The change in both players’ effectiveness was immediately evident after the line switch. It helped the Rangers as a team in the third period as well.

The Rangers can also achieve balance with the rest of their lines, with Trocheck (or Filip Chytil when he returns from injury) centering Panarin and Vitali Kravtsov, and Chytil (or Trocheck) centering Kreider and Jimmy Vesey. That provides three balanced lines that can all be threats offensively, and lets players like Goodrow, Sammy Blais, and Julien Gauthier slot into appropriate fourth-line roles.

More importantly, from a macro organizational standpoint, the Rangers need to jumpstart two of the most important players they have in Kakko and Lafrenière, as the future of the franchise depends on them. While both are still very young, it’s no secret that their development has been slower than most had anticipated. Part of that is on them, but a major part of it is on the coaching staffs for whom they’ve played.

It’s time for Gallant to let them cook. No more yo-yo-ing at the slightest sign of adversity. No more falling back on low-ceiling veterans for prominent offensive roles. Deal with the inevitable bumps in the road the kids will experience, and be rewarded with their likely surges in growth. If one’s argument is that dealing with these growing pains could hurt the team’s chances of winning this year, my response would be that A) it can’t get too much worse than what’s been going on lately, and B) the short-term results would probably still be a net-positive.

It’s pretty clear for both Kakko and Lafrenière that they need more minutes, more responsibility, and more trust shown in them to truly thrive. That way, they can play their games more freely, without fear of a demotion or benching. If Gallant can be patient with them and keep them on the top line with Zibanejad, the payoff could be huge for the Blueshirts, both this season and beyond.

What would also be spectacular is an opportunity for one or both to play on the struggling top power-play unit. That would mean more time with the puck in the zone and for them to let their offensive skills shine. Of course, it might be a while before we see that, but Monday night’s shakeup was a step in the right direction.