How the Rangers can Fill the Void at Center

As things currently stand, the New York Rangers’ forward depth chart is underwhelming to put it mildly. One year after the team was flush with quality options that could play throughout the lineup, Jeff Gorton has assembled a forward corps lacking in depth. Jesper Fast’s hip surgery will leave him sidelined beyond the regular season opener on October 5th at the very least, and it could took more time after he returns to the ice for the Swedish winger to feel 100% again.

In addition to Fast’s injury creating a hole in the bottom six, (which isn’t all bad for Alain Vigneault and the team) New York has yet to fill the void left in the wake of Derek Stepan’s move to Arizona. Although there’s still time for the team to swing a deal and land a proven center such as Colorado’s Matt Duchene or Toronto’s Tyler Bozak, Jeff Gorton appears content with his current group of pivots. Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, David Desharnais, and Boo Nieves are currently penciled in as the Rangers’ top four centers, with Steven Fogarty and Adam Tambellini (neither of which are ready to play in the NHL) as the top options in Hartford.

New York’s depth down the middle is unquestionably their weakest attribute, and is the one element holding the team back from emerging as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Zibanejad, Hayes, and Desharnais would all be better served sliding down one line each, and a true “first line” center could slot into the top three to fix the team’s weakness at center. The cost of acquiring a center of that caliber is too steep for Gorton’s blood at this point, as it would likely require shipping out high-ceiling prospects such as Lias Andersson and Anthony DeAngelo to land one.

Speaking of Andersson, New York’s highest draft pick since the 2004 Draft could be a major factor in how the Rangers’ season turns out. Adam Herman named Andersson as the team’s top prospect less than a week ago, and he had this to say about Andersson’s  chances of sticking on Broadway as a teenager:

The longer the summer goes on without another move at center, the likelier it seems that the Rangers are going to head into training camp with their fingers crossed that Andersson proves himself NHL-ready. Hopefully, the Rangers learned an important lesson with Manny Malhotra about rushing players to the NHL. Still, if Andersson isn’t ready for the NHL by October, then he certainly won’t be far off. He’s incredibly mature, both physically and mentally, for his age. They could also opt to stash him in Hartford for a few months before calling him up, making the transition a bit smoother.

After an excellent performance at Sweden’s summer camp for World Junior selections, ESPN’s Corey Pronman heaped praise on Andersson:

Going into the draft, Andersson was highlighted as the most NHL-ready prospect behind the consensus top two of Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. While the odds of Andsersson immediately emerging as a star are slim to none, a strong training camp performance could land him in New York’s top nine to begin the season. Even if he doesn’t look like a world beater during the pre-season, the Rangers have the option of giving Andersson nine games before deciding whether to burn the first year of his entry level contract.

Re-assigning him to Hartford (where the ELC year would trigger even if he stays in Hartford the entire season) or Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League (which wouldn’t start the clock on his ELC) before giving him nine games doesn’t make sense from the Blueshirts’ perspective. Barring a completely disastrous nine games, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where Andersson doesn’t outplay Nieves and establish himself as a superior option in the NHL right now. Ideally, Andersson can establish himself as a capable top nine player, allowing Desharnais to slide into a more suitable role on the fourth line, as well as giving Alain Vigneault insurance in case Hayes or Zibanejad struggle in their elevated roles within the team.

Once the regular season begins, Jeff Gorton can use the entirety of the season through the trade deadline to evaluate where the team is. If Andersson is able to assert himself as an effective center in the team’s top nine, then Gorton could opt to hold on to his picks and prospects rather than splurge on a rental for the stretch run. Another option in that scenario could be to package a player like Kevin Hayes or J.T. Miller in the hopes of landing somebody to help the Rangers in the present and into the future.

Regardless of how the situation ends up playing out, the Rangers currently find themselves in a very precarious situation. Henrik Lundqvist will be 36 next spring and is losing ground on Father Time. Rick Nash, Brady Skjei, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller are all slated to be major contributors this fall, and will all be free agents next summer. The 17-18 season is shaping up to be New York’s last, best hope at a Stanley Cup. The team’s decision to trade their former first line center for futures has already begun to look like a poor decision, but there’s nothing they can do about it now.

Fortunately for them, Lias Andersson might be able to something about it. It’s up to the team to give him that opportunity, and for Andersson to seize it.