Sammy Blais No Longer Favorite for Rangers’ First Line

There are six days before the New York Rangers’ season opener on October 11, but many roster questions remain. Spots on the first and second-line wings and the bottom six are still up for grabs. Just 28 players remain in camp, but general manager Chris Drury is expected to carry below the 23-player maximum due to salary cap constraints.

That means we will likely see one or two players who have stood out in camp sent to Hartford to be cap compliant. Out of the 28 players still at camp, Jarred Tinordi, Matt Bartkowski, and Jonny Brodzinski will likely start the season in Hartford. With those three players penciled in as cuts, the Rangers would have 25 players still fighting for the few remaining spots.

One of those players is Sammy Blais, and while his spot on the roster likely isn’t in jeopardy, his opportunity to play on the first line alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad could be. Jimmy Vesey, who signed a professional tryout before training camp, has stood out in his return to the Rangers.

Jimmy Vesey New York Rangers
Jimmy Vesey, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Head coach Gerard Gallant is willing to experiment with different players in the vacant right-wing spot on line one, and while the obvious choice may be to put Alexis Lafreniere or Kaapo Kakko there, the duo’s success on a line with Filip Chytil last postseason will likely make Gallant inclined to keep them together.

So, who grabs that first-line spot? Well, if Wednesday’s preseason lines against the Boston Bruins are any indication, it will be Blais who loses out to the surprising emergence of Vesey.

Vesey’s Surprising Preseason

Vesey has played three games in the preseason, registering a goal and two assists. He opened the scoring for the Rangers with the team’s first preseason goal against the New York Islanders before tallying two assists the following night against the Bruins. His third game was a win against the New Jersey Devils, and despite not extending his point streak, he was noticeable, making a game-saving defensive play in the final moments of the third period.

Vesey signed with the Rangers after a phenomenal college career with Harvard. He played three seasons with the Blueshirts from 2016-2019, scoring 50 goals and 90 points. Now, he is running with his second opportunity with the Rangers, surprising Gallant and getting a chance to play on the first line.

Although he has not lived up to the billing since he turned pro, Vesey now has a veteran edge over his counterparts. He is not the long-term answer for the Rangers’ first line but could get the title of a placeholder on opening night. Playing on his off-wing, the 29-year-old forward should see a massive increase in offensive opportunities if he stays on Zibanejad and Kreider’s wing.

Jobs are won and lost in the preseason, and despite this looming decision, Vesey has outplayed Blais thus far. We saw what Frank Vatrano accomplished with a shoot-first mentality on that line after the trade deadline, and now the Massachusetts native will have a chance to replicate that.

This move is not written in stone, and a short leash is likely attached to Vesey on the top line. But if the veteran forward continues to impress over the final preseason games, it will be him on the right wing on the top line on opening night.

Blais Still Gaining Footing After ACL Injury

Blais has appeared in just one preseason game since returning from a gruesome ACL injury last season. He finished the game with a minus-1 in 13:31 of ice time. The former St. Louis Blue was impressive in 2021-22 before his injury, meshing well with Chytil and Lafreniere on what was the third line.

Related: Rangers’ Kravtsov Offered Important Opportunity in Preseason

A lot can happen between now and opening night, but it seems like Gallant might be more comfortable easing Blais back into play with a spot on the fourth line. Blais has the big, physical presence needed to play in the bottom six, but he has also shown flashes of skill that have allowed for the Rangers to be optimistic about what he could bring to the lineup if healthy for a full 82 games.

Starting on the fourth line by no means indicates Gallant is writing off Blais. This season’s approach appears to be similar to the beginning of last season when the vacant spots on the wing were generally filled by committee. Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt, and others spent time in the top six before the deadline came and solidified the rotation.

Blais was given the early chance to play on the top line in training camp, but the results were not where Gallant wanted them to be. The 26-year-old is more suited to a bottom-six role anyway, so the lineup shaking out this way is not a huge surprise. The big surprise is that Vesey seems to have been tabbed as the favorite for that job.

Sammy Blais, New York Rangers
Sammy Blais, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If the Kids Line starts to falter or the experiment doesn’t pay off, it won’t be long before Kakko or Lafreniere fills that void. But for Blais, a hard-working final two games and quality play to start the season could offer him another opportunity like the one he was given to start the preseason.

Rangers’ Forward Depth to be Tested

The Rangers’ forward depth took a hit with the departures of Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, and Tyler Motte. Those players stabilized the areas discussed here and allowed the team to reach the Eastern Conference Final.

Improvements from the Kids Line and the rise of Vitali Kravtsov would certainly alleviate those losses, but a revolving door on line one could hurt the Rangers this season. There is no easy answer for Gallant on who should play alongside Kreider and Zibanejad, but this decision has to be weighed carefully so as not to affect the balance of a team that has been left unsteady.

It’s a delicate line the Rangers are walking, and neither Vesey nor Blais seems like a permanent solution to patching up their first line. But if one can prove to be an adequate stop-gap until reinforcements arrive at the deadline, then the Rangers will continue to be one of the teams to beat in the East.


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