The New York Rangers came into this season with a glut of NHL-capable forwards. While fitting so many good players into a 12-man lineup presented the club with some interesting problems, the benefit of depth made the situation worthwhile.
Now, a few minor injuries have hit the Rangers early in the season, but their depth has allowed them to adapt and stay strong.
Flexibility and Versatility Key for Rangers
The Rangers’ opening night lineup was one that saw rising youngsters Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller on the third line. Not too shabby. Rookie Pavel Buchnevich was getting a shot in the top six, having shown great chemistry with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
Buchnevich, however, began suffering from back spasms after the club’s second game of the season in St. Louis. He has since been placed on IR, even though he should not be out of the lineup long-term.
While missing Buchnevich’s talent and youth is not ideal for the Blueshirts, they were able to fill the hole effectively. Rick Nash moved into Buchnevich’s spot, while Josh Jooris got into the lineup after being a healthy scratch. Jooris centered the fourth line with Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri. Jesper Fast moved to the third line with Hayes and Miller.
Even without Buchnevich, the Rangers still had four skilled lines that could all be a threat offensively. Besides having this depth, the versatility of the personnel allowed head coach Alain Vigneault to try some different combinations without making any major sacrifices to any single line. To that end, Vigneault also had Nash and Mats Zuccarello trade lines to see what he had there.
Although the previous line combinations had been working well, the early part of the season provides the best opportunity for a coach to try different things to see what works and to stick in his back pocket just in case injuries or other circumstances force his hand further at a later point in the season.
Vigneault and the Rangers did indeed just find themselves in a situation where they had to try some new things, as the red-hot Kreider had to miss Sunday’s home victory against Arizona with neck spasms. Kreider’s absence was not insignificant, but the Rangers were still able to ice a top-six of Zibanejad, Zuccarello, Miller, Nash, Derek Stepan, and Jimmy Vesey – still a very potent group. In fact, it was Miller who scored a power play goal playing on the top unit in place of Kreider. Meanwhile, the bottom six of Grabner, Hayes, Fast, Pirri, Jooris, and the fresh-off-IR Oscar Lindberg still gave the Rangers the ability to roll four effective lines. Jooris also contributed against the Coyotes, scoring New York’s first goal.
A Real Fourth Line
Jooris is one example of the Rangers – no matter who has played so far this season – finally having a good fourth line. The combination of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett in 2013-14 was a critical component of that team reaching the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers really have not been able to consistently roll four good lines successfully since then – until now.
Jooris has filled in admirably. When Kreider and Buchnevich are healthy, though, he might have to come back out of the lineup just because of a numbers game. At that point, the Rangers could return to their opening-night fourth line of Pirri centering Grabner and Fast. Or now that Lindberg is healthy, he could replace one of those players in the lineup.
The Grabner-Pirri-Fast trio gives the Rangers the best balance of speed, skill, and defensive acumen (Grabner and Fast have thus far offset any defensive liabilities Pirri might bring). While Pirri’s fit on the line initially did not seem like it would be a good one, yours truly has come around on that.
That said, even if Vigneault somehow goes against my expert opinion, having Lindberg or Jooris play on that line would still afford the Rangers the opportunity to roll out four good forward combinations.
Jooris has scored a goal. Pirri has two goals and two assists. Grabner has two goals and one assist. Fast has three assists. The Rangers (and most teams, for that matter) are not used to getting this much production out of their fourth line, but it’s a luxury they will embrace thanks to GM Jeff Gorton’s shrewd offseason transactions.
The Rangers’ depth and contributions throughout the lineup are major reasons why they are 4-2-0 to start the season and have looked much faster, hungrier, and more dangerous than last season.