Just what will James Sheppard’s role with the Rangers develop into? This is of course a speculative question, one which will only be answered with time. However, while the final answer may only be within the confines of the head of Alain Vigneault, it is certainly one worth pondering in the meantime.
Sheppard was acquired from San Jose last Sunday, the day before the March 2nd trade deadline, in exchange for a fourth round pick in the 2016 NHL draft. At the time of the trade, many – and by many I’m referring to those involved in the Rangers’ twitterverse – rejoiced at the idea that the Rangers had finally gotten their hands on the man who would solve the team’s faceoff woes. Sheppard had of course been playing center on the third line for the Sharks, and had won 50 percent of his draws during the season. In all reality though, center was a spot at which he had struggled, and he appeared better off playing on the wing.
In the Rangers’ first game following the deadline, due to reasons related to hectic travel, Sheppard was not in the lineup. Completely reasonable if you ask me. But as Wednesday’s contest in Detroit approached, it still remained unclear whether or not Sheppard was going to play. Ideas were floated out that had budding star Kevin Hayes moving out of the third line center slot and back to his natural wing, and shifting Dominic Moore up to center the third line and inserting Sheppard to the fourth line; or vise-versa. But either one of those scenario’s would have would have broken up the chemistry of the Hagelin-Hayes-Miller line, and in turn would have more than likely had a ripple effect on the top-six as well.
Instead, the Rangers remained the same down the middle with Brassard, Stepan, Hayes, and Moore, and the only change made was the swapping in and out of Tanner Glass and Sheppard. Naturally, this came to the delight of so very many Ranger fans, as Glass was finally substituted on the fourth line, but it still didn’t do a whole lot as far as patching up the issues in the faceoff circles. The team still has just one skater playing center who is over 50 percent when it comes to draws, and two are below 45 percent, one of which – Hayes – is below 40. That just isn’t good enough, whichever way you slice it.
“I thought he showed good smarts with and without the puck.”
-Alain Vigneault talking to reporters about James Sheppard’s debut following Wednesday’s 3-2 loss in Detroit
Fellow colleague Tom Dianora suggested in his latest article that Sheppard may actually be the key to “Shattering Glass” on Broadway; of course he didn’t actually mean that literally, but you get the point. While it initially appeared following the acquisition that Sheppard could possibly be the guy to be a “pick-me-up” or sorts for the Rangers at the faceoff dots, it now is seeming that he may not actually take on a role at center at all.
While there’s still plenty of hockey to play, and things could always change; the team could hit a bump in the road, lose momentum, or an injury could occur, for the time being, it seems as though the Rangers will be moving forward with the centers currently at their disposal.
If things continue on their current track, Dianora may in fact be correct. Sheppard on the fourth line wing may actually be the key to shattering Glass. After all, the swap is the easiest move for Vigneault even with his defiant support of Glass, and would also keep any developed chemistry intact, despite the team’s dire need for improvement with regard to faceoffs.
One game is far too soon to say for sure what Sheppard’s role with the Rangers will ultimately become, but the early indication is that he will not in fact be the Rangers’ faceoff savior, but a more talented replacement for Tanner Glass on the fourth line instead.
All of that said, we know how quickly that could change. In this instance, patience is indeed a virtue, for we’ll just have to wait and see what comes of James Sheppard in New York.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.