The New York Rangers play the second of back-to-back games against the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday evening. They did not play their best hockey in their first two games back from the All-Star Break – a 2-1 shootout victory over the Boston Bruins on Feb. 15 and a 3-2 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 17. The Rangers improved their play during the following two games – a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 20 and a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals on Feb. 24. They lost their latest game – a 1-0 shutout to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 26.
The Canucks are coming off a dominating 7-1 defeat of their division-rival Calgary Flames on Feb. 24. They have done well offensively during the month of February as they have scored fewer than three goals in a game only once – back on Feb. 1 against the Nashville Predators. They remain in the thick of a close Pacific Division as they are only ten points behind the first-place Flames. With all that said, let’s take a look at some storylines for each team ahead of tonight’s matchup.
2 Storylines: Vancouver Canucks (25-22-6)
Miller Has Been a Top Contributor In February
J.T. Miller, a potential trade candidate at the deadline, has played excellent for the Canucks this month. He has points in six of the eight games his team has played heading into this evening against the Rangers. He has multi-point games in four of his last five contests as well.
During the month of February, he has scored five goals and has contributed eight assists for a total of 13 points in eight games. The 28-year-old has 20 goals and 37 assists in 51 games for Vancouver in 2021-22. After this season, Miller has one year remaining on his current contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
The former Ranger has been rumored to be dealt back to New York among his possible destinations. He is still in the prime of his career and would give the Canucks quite a bit in return if he is dealt by March 21. However, the next few weeks will determine if they decide to be sellers by the deadline given that they are only three points back of the Edmonton Oilers for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
General manager (GM) Patrik Allvin would like to hold onto Miller rather than trade him based on recent comments he made, “Regarding J.T. – I’ve said it before – I’ve been impressed with the way he plays, the way he cares. And I think he’s been probably since I’ve been here, the most consistent player. I think that’s probably something we’re planning as a staff, to sit down together this summer and see which guys are going into the last year of their deals. We want to see where they are, their mindset and what they want to do and if there is a fit here.”
Miller could conceivably fit into the Canucks’ future given his age and overall fit with the team. Vancouver has a good core of players beyond the East Palestine, Ohio native in Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, and Conor Garland. Horvat and Miller are due to be UFAs at the end of 2022-23, and Boeser will be a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of this season.
The Canucks’ performance during the next few weeks will begin to determine the makeup of the franchise for the next few years. Vancouver has played much better since head coach Bruce Boudreau was appointed to the position back in December. The team has also shown they have the potential to qualify for the postseason.
Could the Maple Leafs Acquire Miller By the Trade Deadline?
According to Elliotte Friedman, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that may be a good fit for Miller. “If (Kyle) Dubas is going to be able to use his LTI space I think that’s going to make things really interesting for him. I’m on the J.T. Miller train… for Toronto.”
Friedman commented further on Sportsnet radio regarding the fit between Miller and the Maple Leafs, “I don’t know that the Maple Leafs are going to be able to do this, but I think it’s definitely a possibility. I think Miller would be perfect for them.”
The acquisition of Miller would make Toronto an offensive juggernaut with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander all possibly on the same franchise as the Canucks center. Vancouver will have their share of interested suitors for him in the next few weeks. A particular trade offer for him may be too good for Allvin to pass up when considering the future of the franchise in addition to the present.
2 Storylines: New York Rangers (33-14-5)
Lafreniere Fitting in on the First Line
Alexis Lafreniere has done well on the Rangers’ top line since he replaced the injured Kaapo Kakko. While the former first overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft by New York is not playing his natural position of left wing, he has provided head coach Gerard Gallant with another option in the top six. Long-term, the preference is for him to play in the top six given where he was drafted.
Gallant commented recently about Lafreniere’s play, “He’s played better hockey the last 20 games, for sure. I really like the way he plays. He competes hard and he wasn’t getting the goals he wanted, but tonight was a big game for him. He’s played better hockey, he’s getting more chances, playing a 200-foot game and that’s what we like” (from ‘Rangers’ top line delivers telling win over Capitals,’ New York Post, 2/24/22).
Depending on how Lafreniere continues to progress on the first line with Kakko out of the lineup, Gallant may choose to keep the 20-year-old with Mikka Zibanejad and Chris Kreider during the majority of the games. New York has been searching for better production at the right-wing position in the top six for most of 2021-22. If the native of St-Eustache, Quebec can continue to create offensive opportunities and produce goals and assists on the first line, GM Chris Drury may not feel as much of an urgency to acquire another right-wing by the deadline.
Morgan Barron Filling in for Filip Chytil
Morgan Barron, who has filled a reserve role for the Rangers this year, received another opportunity to contribute to the team as Filip Chytil was unavailable to play during the win against the Capitals. The 23-year-old center was on the third line with Greg McKegg and Julien Gauthier. Gallant commented on the performance of the trio and of Barron in particular after the game on Feb. 24, “They created some chances, there’s no doubt they had two or three good chances. I thought he actually scored the short side there, but he played well. He skated well and had a couple good bumps” (from ‘Rangers’ Morgan Barron comes up big in place of ill Filip Chytil, New York Post, 2/24/22).
Barron has not had much time with the Rangers on a consistent basis this season as he has played more often for the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League (AHL). Gallant commented further about what the Halifax, Nova Scotia native can bring to the Rangers, “He’s played in some games and we’ve liked what he’s done. He’s been a guy called up and sent down and back up. Young player who I think can skate well, he’s practiced real hard for us the last little while. So just keep doing what he was doing when he played, he did a real good job when he played those games. He’s a big guy that can skate real well and we want to see him.” While he has not contributed much offensively, the second-year forward is an option to put in the bottom six when needed.
The Rangers continue to keep pace with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Penguins, and Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. It remains to be seen if they will make a big acquisition by the deadline such as trading for Miller. Trading for a good forward such as the former Ranger would make it evident they have the intention of winning a Stanley Cup within the next couple of seasons. Gallant has made quite a difference for the organization this year in turning it into a contender to win the Metro in 2021-22.