Rangers Must Address Forward Logjam Before the Postseason

The New York Rangers haven’t mathematically clinched a playoff berth yet, however, they will. They took over second place from the Pittsburgh Penguins after winning 3-2 Tuesday night in Pittsburgh and should secure the second or third seed after game 82. The Blueshirts have 91 points with one game in hand to the Penguins’ 90 with 15 and 14 games left, respectively. After adding some pieces near the trade deadline, head coach Gerard Gallant has had some juggling to do with the forwards and the key is to find the right matches before the playoffs start.

Vatrano on the First Line

Since coming over from the Florida Panthers, Frank Vatrano has thrived in a newer role. Vatrano has gone from playing mostly on the fourth line in Florida to top six in New York. When he first arrived, he played with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome for four games. In the last three games, he was up with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

Frank Vatrano New York Rangers
Frank Vatrano, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He has five goals in seven games with the Blueshirts and four while playing with Zibanejad and Kreider. Before the addition of Vatrano, Alexis Lafreniere was playing on that line and showing signs of his potential but it appears Vatrano may be sticking there for the playoff run.

Copp Steps in for Strome

Andrew Copp who was recently acquired from the Winnipeg Jets got the call to step up to the second line with Panarin and Dryden Hunt on Tuesday. He also got the chance to play what he considers his natural position (center) due to Ryan Strome’s “lower-body injury.” Gallant said this before the game against the Penguins, “I’m trying to put the best lineup together for [Tuesday’s] game,” Gallant said. “He can play center, he prefers center, he’ll play either wing. They’re all over the place and we’re just trying to get the lineup that best suits us for the Pittsburgh Penguins.” (from ‘Rangers hoping injured Ryan Strome can play vs Red Wings,’ New York Post, 2/29/22)

Related: Rangers News & Rumors: Trade Deadline, Copp, Vatrano, Motte & More

Copp, who’s bounced around the lineup the most since coming to the team, says this about playing in the middle, “I think I was doing a little bit too much thinking last game when I was in the middle,” Copp said. “It wasn’t coming as seamlessly as a different system did for seven years for me. I think it’s dictating pace and just creating space and opportunities for my linemates to succeed.”

Andrew Copp New York Rangers
Andrew Copp, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This is a great opportunity for Copp to show Gallant and president/general manager (GM) Chris Drury that he can be the Rangers’ second-line center moving forward. Both he and Strome are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) at the end of the season and it’s almost certain one of them has to go. Strome who’s listed as “day to day” is traveling with the team and may or may not suit up Wednesday in Detroit which could give Copp another chance to solidify himself at center.

Lafreniere Back to Bottom Six

After spending time on the top line with Zibanejad and Kreider, Lafreniere has been shifted back to the third line since the trade deadline. He showed flashes of his potential with Zibanejad and Kreider and will get back to a top-six role soon enough. However, with the deadline acquisitions, he’s likely going to stay where he’s at coming down the stretch, and into the playoffs. He manned the left wing with Filip Chytil at center and Barclay Goodrow on the right Tuesday.

Motte and Reaves 4th Line Mainstays for Playoff Run

When Kaapo Kakko returns, it will cause a battle for a fourth-line spot. Kakko will be inserted somewhere on the top three lines and with the new acquisitions, some regulars will be a healthy scratch when the playoffs start. Depending on matchups and who they play in the first round, the fourth line will most likely interchange between four or five guys.

Ryan Reaves New York Rangers
Ryan Reaves, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, I’d have Motte and Reaves solidified on the wings and insert Chytil, Brodzinski, or Rooney in the middle with Hunt filling in wherever needed. I’d stick with who’s winning draws consistently, especially for late in the game.

Playoff Line Combinations

Kreider Zibanejad Vatrano
Panarin Strome Goodrow
Lafreniere Copp Kaako
Motte Chytil Reaves

The Rangers added depth at the deadline. Drury made good moves and didn’t give up much. This team is solid from top to bottom and laced with talent. They’ve learned to play hard and gritty consistently than in past seasons. The defensive core is strong and they’ve got one of the best goalies and a possible 2021-22 Vezina Trophy winner in the game. The only thing they’re currently lacking is playoff experience. They need to figure out how to win playoff hockey games and long, tough series. They also need to learn how hard the losses sting more and more as each round progresses. That’s how you grow into a Stanley Cup champion.