Although Gerard Gallant was again away from his team in the COVID-19 protocol Thursday night, the New York Rangers coach had to be heartened by watching his club play exactly the style he envisions for it.
Despite a stripped-down roster due to Barclay Goodrow, Alexis Lafreniere, Ryan Reaves and Julien Gauthier also being in the protocol, the Blueshirts came away with a 3-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks as they completed the West Coast portion of their five-game road trip. They did it with a relentless forecheck, a straightforward north-south approach and mostly responsible work in their own end in keeping the puck to the outside – though Gallant likely would have preferred fewer than 37 shots on goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who made his return from the protocol after missing three games.
The forecheck portion of the winning formula came most forcefully from the Pack Line of Morgan Barron, Jonny Brodzinski and Tim Gettinger. All have been members of the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, this season and were playing for their coach at Hartford, Kris Knoblauch, subbing in for Gallant.
The line has been at least a short-term revelation for the Blueshirts the last three games, providing energy and grinding work in the offensive zone while the Rangers deal with the absences of Goodrow and Reaves, two of their most prolific forecheckers. The unit isn’t likely to remain intact on the NHL level for long with the Blueshirts’ four quarantined forwards nearing a return – Reaves and Gauthier are eligible to play Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers – but there’s at least one lineup change Gallant can make based on the trio’s performance when he gets back behind the bench.
That would be to give Barron an extended look at center – a move that’s probably overdue – in place of Filip Chytil, the talented 22-year-old who nonetheless just doesn’t provide enough on a nightly basis to continue to play in the middle.
Barron’s Power Game is Exactly What Gallant is Looking For
The simple fact is that Barron’s strong work along the boards and driving to the front of the net embodies the style that Gallant is continuing to instill in the Rangers. The organization has harbored high hopes for the 23-year-old since drafting him in the sixth round in 2017 out of Cornell, and Barron has played well enough in a pair of five-game NHL auditions the past two seasons to warrant a shot at nailing down a consistent spot in the lineup.
Much like fellow Wolf Pack alum Braden Schneider, the big, tough defenseman who kicked off his own golden chance to stick on Broadway with a stellar debut against the Sharks, it’s time to see if the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Barron can grow into the role the Rangers foresee for him: A power center who grinds, wins faceoffs, can match up defensively with talented opposing pivots and scores goals, too.
Though it’s tough to expect the 23-year-old Barron to become that all-around player immediately, his recent contributions have trumped those of Chytil, who the Rangers have been patiently waiting on to fulfill his considerable potential. The club, however, will probably face a decision on the Czech’s future soon.
Chytil possesses size, elite hands, speed and power skating ability, but he’s never been able to put all of that together through parts of five NHL seasons. Once ticketed as the club’s future second-line center, Chytil hasn’t been able to distinguish himself as a clear third-line option, leaving the Rangers with a conundrum as they ponder whether to try and re-sign current No. 2 pivot Ryan Strome this summer.
Chytil hasn’t shown any evidence of being able to elevate the play of his linemates as a center, as he’s not a distributor and has the tendency to wander and hold the puck too long in the offensive zone. He’s also abysmal at the faceoff dot, posting a career 40 percent mark that’s simply unsustainable at the NHL level.
The future for the 21st overall pick in the 2017 draft, one the Rangers have resisted to this point, might be conceding that he’s a right wing, the spot from which he’s delivered his best stretches of play during several stints there. Chytil’s trademark fast, strong rushes up the right side before cutting hard to the net seem to confirm that he’s a more natural fit for that position, and putting him there might free him to do what he does best without having to deal with the added responsibilities that come with playing center.
A move of Chytil to the right might help fill the Rangers’ hole on that side, brought on by injury and lack of depth, perhaps rendering the need to acquire another winger this season moot. He could also be part of a trade for such a top-six forward reinforcement at the deadline, or he could be dealt in the offseason with the Rangers facing major salary-cap issues.
However Gallant proceeds, the best course of action when the four regular forwards return is to give Barron Chytil’s minutes in the middle, at least until the March 21 trade deadline draws near.
With Center Position Thin, Barron Critical to Rangers’ Future
Sliding Chytil over to the wing doesn’t have to equate to discarding him – again, provided he’s not traded – as such tantalizing potential still seems difficult to give up on at such a young age. Chytil taking the spot on Barron’s right, with either Goodrow or Lafreniere manning the left could make for a versatile third forward unit that might provide more than the Rangers are getting out of their third line now. In the coming seasons, Barron could be joined on a line by power forward prospect Will Cuylle, with whom he teamed so impressively during a pair of games against Flyers prospects during training camp.
Barron’s importance to the Rangers’ future beyond this season can’t be overlooked either. Strome is set to cash in as an unrestricted free agent this summer, his $4.5 million cap hit certain to rise, possibly to a level where the Rangers can’t go. Fourth-line center Kevin Rooney, also a pending UFA, has proved to be a major bargain on a two-year, $1.5 million deal that expires in the offseason, and he might double his current annual salary on the open market.
The Rangers are expected to have about $10 million in cap space for next season, with Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and K’Andre Miller also due for bridge deals over the next two summers. The club desperately needs cheap, effective options down the middle, with the distinct possibility that two established NHL centers will depart after the season from an organization that’s already dangerously thin at the position. Barron is set to make $925,000 on the final year of his entry-level contract in 2022-23, with the possibility of giving him an inexpensive qualifying offer the season after.
So the Blueshirts have to find out whether Barron is a long-term solution, to give themselves at least a glimpse of his ceiling and whether he might top out as a strong third- or fourth-line option, or perhaps more. The way to do that is to elevate him above Chytil for the short-term – with the added bonus being the clear possibility that Barron will be the more productive player for the rest of this season’s playoff push, too.
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I’m a resident of the Chicago area by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to the Midwest in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.