The New York Rangers have started the regular season, but their fourth line still appears to be something of a mystery regarding who fits where.
Now throughout the course of an 82-game season, there will always be some line juggling as slumps and injuries come into play, but in recent years, there hasn’t been the thought going into game one of the season, that players were still actively jockeying for positioning in the lineup. Nowhere in the lineup is this more apparent than on the New Yorks’ bottom forward line. Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault needs to decide if he wants to keep the fourth line as storage for specialty players or if he wants to deploy a good defensive unit.
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Fourth Line Firepower
Coming into training camp, no one saw Brandon Pirri as a fourth line type player, at least not for any stretch of time. However, in game one, we saw the forward leading the charge on the bottom unit. The line looked good with Pirri there and they even had a goal to show for it. Pirri got free and took a hard shot and Michael Grabner in front of the net to scoop up the loose change.
It seems important to note that Pirri didn’t take one defensive zone faceoff the entire game, which indicates the Rangers are worried about putting him in a tough defensive position. After all, throughout his career Pirri has been an offensive shoot first type player so this role is somewhat foreign to him.
In recent years the Rangers have put Dominic Moore on the ice for defensive zone draws, so if they do have plans for keeping Pirri on the fourth line, this indicates a shift in the coaches philosophy.
The Checking Line
Josh Jooris plays more to the mold of what you expect from a fourth line center in that he’s physical, stays on the right side of his checks and doesn’t try to do too much. Pirri has more of a tendency to jump up into the play to try to create offense. While this is a good quality in some aspects of the game, it’s not always great when a coach is looking to use his bottom unit as a shut-down line.
Jooris, however, could thrive in such a role. He’s played this style with the Calgary Flames and could completely change the complexion of the line if given a chance. The issue is that he hardly played in the preseason as he battled injuries, so having not had the opportunity to impress the coaches could play a role in his future.
Now to thicken the plot further Oscar Lindberg should be returning within the next few weeks, and he will likely have a leg up on both of his teammates. He’s something of a mix between both Jooris and Pirri in that he has offensive instincts but still plays responsible hockey, plus he’s been groomed by the Rangers’ system so they know what they can expect from him. Last season the 24-year-old Swede had 13 goals 15 assists and was a plus-12.
To me, this comes down to a decision between Pirri and Lindberg, with Lindberg having a leg up. The fact is that center depth is crucial, and not having a real center on the fourth line who can be trusted in a tight spot would be a bad situation for the Rangers to put themselves in. Now we may not see Pirri gone from the fourth line altogether. The fact is that he’s on fire right now, so maybe moving him to the wing would give them the best of both worlds. Pirri would no longer have to deal with the defensive rigors of playing center, and the Rangers would still get to roll him out on the power-play for the big shot.