Rangers Must Commit to Developing Their Young Centers

The New York Rangers won the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery and have the first selection in the draft. The top prospect this year is winger Alexis Lafreniere, which means the Rangers won’t be able to address their lack of depth at center with their top pick. While Mika Zibanejad had an excellent season and Ryan Strome played well, Brett Howden and Filip Chytil went through some growing pains.

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Despite that weakness, New York should focus on developing Howden and Chytil rather than trying to trade for a top center. Howden is 22-years-old and Chytil is 20. They both have potential and can develop into key players for the Rangers.

Brett Howden

Howden is already a fairly effective defensive center, who can chip in offensively. He’s become a good penalty killer and isn’t afraid to block shots or engage in physical battles. One area of his game he can still improve on is his faceoff percentage. In 2018-19, his rookie season, he won 48.4 percent of his faceoffs, as he won 353 and lost 376. He failed to improve this season, winning 48.2 percent of his faceoffs, winning 251 and losing 270.

Brett Howden New York Rangers
Brett Howden has become an important penalty killer for the Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Howden can become an excellent defensive center if he can improve on faceoffs. Dominic Moore and Brian Boyle both excelled in that role for the Blueshirts during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014. Howden will be very valuable for the Rangers if he can play the way they did defensively and chip in a little more offensively.

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Howden finished with six goals and 17 assists in 66 games during the 2018-19 season. This season he finished with nine goals and 10 assists in 70 games. While he didn’t put up bigger numbers than he did in his rookie season, his production isn’t bad considering he spent the majority of the season on the fourth line, with players like Brendan Smith, and Greg McKegg. His numbers should improve if he plays with more skilled linemates and continues to get stronger.

Filip Chytil

The Rangers must also continue to develop Chytil. Despite his young age, he briefly played for the Blueshirts during the 2017-18 season and has spent the last two seasons with them as well. He has gotten stronger since his rookie year and has shown tremendous potential but still has plenty of areas he can improve in.

Filip Chytil New York Rangers
Filip Chytil scored 14 goals for the Rangers this season (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of his most notable weaknesses is his struggle to win faceoffs. Chytil has won just 38.4 percent of the faceoffs he’s taken in his NHL career. The Rangers can work with him and he should improve as he continues to get stronger and more experienced.

Chytil played better defensively and scored more this season than he did during the 2018-19 season. He finished with 11 goals and 12 assists in 2018-19 and finished with 14 goals and nine assists this season. While the numbers don’t jump off the page, he showed flashes of potential with coast-to-coast goals and impressive passes.

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Chytil has struggled with consistency in his first few NHL seasons. In his final 15 games of the regular season, he had just two goals and one assist, and he failed to register a point in three postseason games. Still, that shouldn’t be too much of a concern, given how young he is.

Zibanejad struggled with consistency in his first few seasons and he has developed into an elite center. As long as Chytil continues to improve and work hard, New York should stay patient with him and continue to play him at center rather than playing him as a winger.

Lack of Cap Space

The Rangers should have additional motivation to develop their own young centers rather than signing a free agent or trading draft picks because they don’t have much cap space. The salary cap will remain at $81.5 million next season, which is lower than it was projected to be. The Blueshirts have to reach new deals with Strome, Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, who are all restricted free agents. They may also re-sign unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast.

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New York may not have much cap space but they can still add a center in the 2020 Draft with the first-round pick they acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Brady Skjei. They also have a few prospects that play center, including Morgan Barron and Karl Henriksson. Because of this, the Rangers should not feel pressure to make a trade for a center.

Moving Forward

The Rangers may not have much depth at center now but that can quickly change if they are able to develop the young centers they already have. It certainly won’t hurt that their centers will get to play with talented wingers, including Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, and in all likelihood Lafreniere.

Alexis Lafrenière Rimouski Oceanic
Alexis Lafrenière will likely be selected by the Rangers with the first pick of the 2020 NHL Draft (Photo by Vincent Ethier/CHL)

Thus far, the Rangers rebuild is going better than even they could have expected. They just need to remain patient and continue to develop their young players, especially their centers, and trust that Chytil and Howden will improve. The Blueshirts have a bright future ahead of them, and it will only get brighter as their youngsters mature and develop.