The Rangers woes down the middle have been written about for years as the team has attempted to sign or trade for virtually every high-profile center since Messier’s decline. Brassard and Stepan have admirably stepped in as solid top-six centers, and Dominic Moore has shored up the fourth line, but without another true center currently in the lineup there will still be a question mark on the third line. JT Miller and Kevin Hayes filled the role this past season, and with almost no cap flexibility it seems like the team won’t be bringing in a new face.
When JT Miller was drafted from the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, Rangers fans and media quickly slotted him as a future center with the organization. After his move from the USNTDP to the London Knights though, it became apparent that Miller wasn’t exactly suited to be a full-time center at a high level. He spent parts of the 2011-12 season on Stefan Noesen’s right wing, and it became apparent that he excelled playing there.
The organizational move to put him back in the middle was an understandable one, but one that at this point doesn’t seem like one worth experimenting anymore. Miller is a dynamic offensive player who believe he can make plays happen all on his own, which is great when it works out for him but horrifying when he turns the puck over and is caught out of position as a center. We’ve seen a lot of both sides of JT Miller so far.
If Alain Vigneault decides to start Miller at center it would be understandable, but I believe it’s only a matter of time before he’s on the right wing opposing either Chris Kreider or Emerson Etem.
Nobody expected Boston College’s star winger Kevin Hayes to fill the third center position this season, but by the end of the season that’s where the big man was. Hayes clearly has more upside as a winger, but being able to fill the role was important for a team looking to win a Cup and the rookie made an obvious sacrifice to make the team better.
While Hayes was serviceable at center, his face-off percentage is seriously troubling. Hayes, who took the fourth-most face-offs of any Ranger, won just 36.3% of his chances during the regular season. Even for a team ranked 29th in the league in face-offs, that’s just pitiful. It’s hard to blame Hayes of course, but it’s also hard to see that number and be comfortable with it moving forward.
It’s very possible that Hayes ends up being the team’s third center this season, especially if Vigneault can look past the atrocious face-off numbers and make sure to shelter the line’s minutes, long-term Hayes will almost certainly be a better winger for this club.
The X-Factor of Oscar Lindberg, who has played in just one NHL game, is the most intriguing. Lindberg masterfully centered the top line in Hartford this past season and the 23-year-old could be walking into the most important season of his hockey career. Lindberg’s 56 points were good for 2nd on the team and 23rd in the AHL, and isn’t that far removed from winning the Swedish J20 SuperElit award for best face-off percentage three years in a row.
Lindberg’s profile when he came to North America was his responsible defensive play and enough skill to chip in offensively but not overwhelm. Even his 42 point 2012-13 season for Skelleftea AIK isn’t all that impressive when you consider his linemates Bud Holloway and Joakin Lindstrom scored 71 and 52 points respectively. Lindberg may very well be ready to make the jump to the NHL, and maybe centering either JT Miller or Kevin Hayes (or both?) would be a perfect situation for him.
I fully believe that having Oscar Lindberg on the roster at the start of the season is the best move they can make. He’d be more defensively responsible than most rookie forwards in the league and might be a perfect fit on the third line.