Back in November, when the New York Rangers were still struggling to consistently win games, I wrote that they should break up the Kid Line of Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko.
Since then, head coach Gerard Gallant has shuffled the lines numerous times, including long periods of time where the young trio was indeed separated. More recently, however, they have been back together. Their performance of late has me reconsidering my November stance. While some of the points I made at that time still have some validity, the excellent performance of the Kid Line lately — and how being together helps all of them play more freely — creates much more of a dilemma.
The Argument for the Kid Line
The argument in favor of keeping the Kid Line together is simple: They are playing extremely well together. They have a natural chemistry with one another, and they complement each other’s skill sets well. Chytil is a sniper with speed, Kakko is a puck hound who is strong on the boards and has plenty of skill to boot, and Lafrenière is a playmaker who has a strong finishing touch when he’s on his game. Maybe this summary oversimplifies each of their games, but the point is that these traits work well together.
Moreover, when the kids are separated from veteran forwards, they seem to play much more freely, as they don’t have veterans to whom to defer. Each becomes more assertive in his overall play — especially Lafrenière, who appears to have his swagger back after an extended slump for much of this season, where his low confidence was eminently palpable.
I’ve never been shy about critcizing Gallant’s lineup and deployment decisions, but I have to give him credit where it’s due; he recently made this very point, speaking to how the kids actually play better without veterans:
He believes they're more aggressive as one line because "it's just them."— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) January 22, 2023
"We tell them every day every day in practice, ‘You’ve got good shots. Have confidence in your game. Shoot the puck. We need more people shooting the puck & you young kids are good goal-scorers."#NYR
The recent results speak for themselves. Chytil has caught fire once again, with six goals in his past four games. He’s up to 18 goals in just 42 games this season. Kakko, while snakebitten in the goal department, has managed to tap into his playmaking abilities, with four assists in the past four games, and six helpers in the past six. Lafrenière has two goals and three assists in his past five games.
Beyond the point production is how in-control the Rangers are when these three players are on the ice together. For the season, they help the Rangers to a solid expected-goals-for percentage (xGF%) of 52.46 percent while on the ice at five-on-five (per Natural Stat Trick). Since Jan. 23, however (a span of four games), that number balloons up to 60.03 percent. Without any of the three players, the Rangers’ xGF% over that same time period is only 47.74 percent.
The kids have all been productive lately, and appear to be confident with one another. Their confidence is critical to their continued growth and success, so keeping them together makes a ton of sense in this regard.
The Argument Against the Kid Line
Of course, keeping the Kid Line together has its drawbacks as well. These have less to do with the trio’s play together (which has been outstanding) and more to do with lineup balance.
With Chytil, Kakko, and Lafrenière all on the same line, that leaves the Rangers with limited options at right wing for their two other “scoring” lines. Lately, Jimmy Vesey has taken that position on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Artemiy Panarin, while Barclay Goodrow has been skating on the right side with Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider.
As I mentioned in November, Vesey and Goodrow can be effective players, and the former has been excellent this season, exceeding any realistic expectations. However, they are not best-suited for top-six, scoring roles. Vesey would slot in well on a third or fourth line, while Goodrow would be
an overpaid a luxury fourth-liner.
Who else could take those roles, though? I would argue for Vitali Kravtsov, but A) his production has been limited, and B) it’s probably going to stay that way as long as Gallant regularly scratches him and keeps him on a short leash, and C) Gallant is obviously going to keep doing point B in spite of its silliness. I’d be surprised if Kravtsov is still with the organization after the March 3 trade deadline, but alas, that is a separate discussion.
Breaking up the Kid Line, on paper, goes a long way towards creating more lineup balance. The Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko combination has been fantastic pretty much whenever they’ve played together this season (see below graphic from Hockey Viz; that offensive chance creation is pretty outrageous, in a good way).
There’s also a narrative that Panarin and Trocheck have not meshed when together this season. The strong results from the early-season combination of Panarin-Trocheck-Lafrenière, however, would beg to differ, and suggest that that is a combination the Rangers should perhaps try again.
What’s the Solution?
Clearly, splitting up Lafrenière, Chytil, and Kakko provides the Rangers with more depth throughout the lineup. That was the crux of my original argument back in November. But their increased assertiveness and confidence, and their overall efficacy when together — plus the fact that they could grow into the Rangers core forward trio in the years to come — supports the idea of maintaining the Kid Line. Seeing the immediate difference in Lafrenière’s game, in particular, has been pretty eye-opening.
On the other hand, the kids also need ample ice time to continue to develop, and when together, Gallant has shown a tendency to cut back on their time in favor of the Zibanejad and Trocheck lines, even though the latter get more special-teams time as well. That said, in the team’s most recent game — a game-of-the-year candidate against the Calgary Flames — Lafrenière, Chytil, and Kakko each played about 16 minutes. That’s the level of deployment Gallant should roll with (at minimum) if the kids remain together.
With the current roster, there is no clear answer as to whether or not the Rangers should keep the Kid Line or break it up, as there are pros and cons to both.
The key phrase there is “with the current roster.” With the March 3 trade deadline approaching, the Rangers could pretty clearly benefit from adding a top-six right winger or two (just not Patrick Kane, please). Such a player could slide onto the Zibanejad and/or Trocheck lines, giving them more potency while allowing the kids to keep cooking together. Then Vesey and/or Goodrow could go back to more appropriate bottom-six roles, giving the Blueshirts a healthy amount of depth.
In the interim, however, I’ll go against my November argument and support keeping the kids together — and giving them significant minutes.