The New York Rangers’ third-line center came off the ice early after attempting to skate during practice Friday, his attempt to return quickly from a shoulder to the head last weekend apparently a failure in what can only be described as a big blow for the struggling Blueshirts.
Should an injury to a supposed Stanley Cup contender’s third-line pivot be described in such serious terms? In the case of the 2022-23 Rangers, the answer is a serious yes.
Filip Chytil collided with Columbus Blue Jackets’ Cole Sillinger in the Blueshirts’ 5-1 loss last Sunday. His absence from the Rangers’ next two games cascaded through the lineup in just the latest example of the precarious level of depth on a team that supposedly has its sights set on a championship this season.
The Rangers played well in dropping a 3-2 shootout decision to the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in the first game without Chytil on Tuesday, firing 44 shots on former teammate Alexandar Georgiev, but still ended up with only two goals. Chytil’s absence was then keenly felt in a 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders the next day. Though they posted another high shot total with 41, the makeup of the bottom two forward lines put a harsh spotlight on how these Blueshirts appear to have little chance to overcome a long-term injury to any significant player.
Rangers’ Bottom Six Struggling With Chytil Out
Just nine games into this season of big expectations, the Rangers look top-heavy, losing four in a row and struggling to fill out a complete lineup even with everyone healthy before snapping the skid with a 6-3 road win over the Dallas Stars on Saturday. That an injury to a player who totaled 16 goals over the past two seasons has created a personnel mini-crisis does not seem to bode well for getting through the grind of the NHL season, one which always requires top teams to receive production from throughout the roster.
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With Chytil out against the Avalanche, Barclay Goodrow moved into the middle of the third line, with Jimmy Vesey on his left and Vitali Kravtsov on the right. Though Vesey-Goodrow-Kravtsov was a paste job, a hodgepodge combination lacking a clear identity or purpose, Goodrow did contribute a goal and an assist and was a plus-2. Vesey had an assist and was plus-1, and Kravtsov was plus-2 even though he left with an apparent injury for the second time in three games.
Against the Islanders, though, the Rangers were incapable of mounting a serious secondary scoring threat against their defensively-suffocating archrivals – exactly the kind of contribution the Blueshirts need from Chytil. The club recalled right wing Julien Gauthier from Hartford of the American Hockey League to replace Kravtsov, and he did what the Rangers have become accustomed to in his time on Broadway – flash a breathtaking power game, but fail to finish.
The fourth line for both games was Ryan Carpenter, Sammy Blais and Ryan Reaves. Blais, still feeling his way after missing most of last season following a knee injury, seemed to epitomize a sense of uncertainty that surrounded a bottom forward unit from which too much was expected.
Get used to more of the same. After Chytil departed practice, coach Gerard Gallant announced he would not make the weekend swing through Dallas and Arizona, the 23-year-old failing to recover sufficiently enough from a suspected concussion.
“Good news, he had a full practice — almost a full practice — but he didn’t feel good at the end,” Gallant said, seemingly contradicting himself. “We’re gonna be safe and he’s not coming on the trip.” (From ‘Rangers’ Filip Chytil Practices But Will Miss at Least Next Two Games’, New York Post, 10/28/22)
The Rangers overcame Chytil’s injury to end their losing streak Saturday behind big efforts from their top guys, with Mika Zibanejad (one goal, two assists), Vincent Trocheck (two goals, one assist) and Chris Kreider (goal, assist) leading the way. However, they also got a big goal from Gauthier, his first since Jan. 22.
Is Gauthier finally ready to contribute from the bottom six? The Rangers would of course welcome that, given that Kravtsov once again left the game after taking a hard hit from Stars defenseman Jani Hakanpaa. Either way, the Blueshirts seem destined for more games with mismatched bottom-six players trying to contribute offensively – especially while Chytil recovers.
Gallant Leaning Heavily on Top Two Lines With Options Limited
In the meantime, Gallant is likely to keep riding his best players hard. Top center Zibanejad got more than 25 minutes of ice time Tuesday, while Artemi Panarin surpassed the 24 mark. Zibanejad then played 22 minutes Saturday, while the third unit of Vesey, Goodrow and Kravtsov was on for two goals against and didn’t record a point in limited duty.
Though the coach probably has little choice but do so at the moment, the weekend back-to-back followed by a home matchup with the resurgent Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday means the Rangers could have two exhausted top forward lines if they can’t get enough from their bottom six. From a long-view standpoint, that’s no way to get through an 82-game season with star players fresh enough for the playoffs.
Chytil, who looked to be carrying his breakout postseason performance into 2022-23 with two goals and an assist in six games, has played more than 70 games only once in his six-year career. The utter lack of offensive center options to replace him, even for what the club is hoping is a relatively short time away, is an indictment of the organization’s odd refusal to prioritize depth in the middle for some time now.
Without Chytil driving play – he posted a career-best 53.2 Corsi for percentage before getting hurt – and Kravtsov being injured again, the Rangers are scrambling both on and off the ice. Forced to recall Gauthier, the cap-strapped Blueshirts went from a projected $4 million in trade deadline cap space to $765,000. While that number will go back up when the club inevitably returns to a 22-man roster, every day spent with 23 eats into its ability to ease the depth problem before the March 3 deadline.
Truth is, this isn’t a new issue. The Rangers were so bereft of options at right wing last season that fourth-liner Dryden Hunt, now with the Avs after being waived, spent extensive time on the second line with Panarin. The Blueshirts were able to cover over the problem with huge seasons from Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider and other top players, and they were able to fortify fully at the deadline, taking advantage of essentially unlimited cap space to add forwards Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp to play on the top two lines.
Rangers’ Avenues to Improve Bottom Two Lines Are Limited
With those two players – and more importantly, that glut of cap space – now gone, the lack of viable options beyond this team’s star forward core has again become glaring.
There are other problems, of course. Team defense seems to come and go. High-end young forwards Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere still don’t contribute enough, with Lafreniere looking more and more like a natural left wing who’s being forced to play on the right because of a glut of star power at his usual position. The Rangers are trying to figure out the correct combination for the third defense pair, and even the backup goaltending is a concern, with veteran Jaroslav Halak looking shaky in his first three games in a Rangers sweater.
Chytil being out, however, has exposed the extent of the Rangers’ lack of depth more clearly than anything else. His offensive talents are key to taking some of the pressure off of the star-laden top two lines, which will be the focus of opponents’ top forward units and defense pairings in the playoffs.
The Blueshirts might be able to get away with some victories without their dynamic third-line center, as they did against the Stars. Chances are they won’t earn nearly enough wins without him – or without bottom-six help that might elude them all season.