As training camp kicks off, New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant addressed the media on Tuesday, going over his line combinations, injury updates, and his outlook for 2022-23. Those line combinations, which included Sammy Blais on the first-line wing, Vitali Kravtsov on the second-line wing, and the ‘Kids Line’ staying together, had fans talking.
Wednesday was the first on-ice session, a rotation of three groups (A, B, & C) with two scrimmages and the third practicing each day. Alexis Lafreniere, the first-overall pick in 2020, was the consensus choice to jump up alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on line one, while Kaapo Kakko, picked second overall in 2019, was expected to play with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.
Before tearing his ACL last season, Blais was a power forward who showed off his hands, including a jaw-dropping setup for Lafreniere against the Nashville Predators. The 26-year-old is searching for a career year after coming off a disappointing campaign and being placed on the first-line will present him with a new chance in his young career.
Kravtsov getting a look on the second line right wing is less surprising than the Blais decision but still unexpected. The former first-round selection opted to return to the KHL last season instead of reporting to the Hartford Wolfpack. Many thought that was the end of his Rangers’ tenure, but fast forward one year, and he has a great chance to crack his first opening-night roster. The Russian connection with Panarin should offer him some help adjusting to life overseas, and Trocheck will give Kravtsov defensive support that could help him thrive.
Gallant is a calculated man, and what likely factored into his line combinations wasn’t how well Blais and Kravtsov fit together, but how good the trio of Kakko, Lafreniere, and Filip Chytil were in the postseason. Keeping them together should help all three of these young players grow, while Gallant hopes their playoff success will translate to an 82-game regular season.
Kids Line Gave Rangers a Spark Last Postseason
It is remarkable what the Rangers’ recent retool has brought them. They transitioned from Henrik Lundqvist to Igor Shesterkin. They signed Panarin and traded for Adam Fox. And to top it all off, they moved up in the draft lottery twice, picking second and first overall back-to-back years. It was an ultra-successful rebuild for the Blueshirts.
Yet, the traditional route for younger players after being selected was not an option for the Rangers. Typically, top overall picks are given ample ice time and special teams opportunities as they develop in the NHL. Instead, the trio of Lafreniere, Kakko, and Chytil, saw those opportunities given to the veteran talent that surrounded them on the roster.
Lafreniere, Kakko, and Chytil have never had consistent power-play time, and their ice time has fluctuated between 12-15 minutes per game since they entered the league. Despite these limited minutes, the trio was grouped together in the postseason, paving the way for a magnificent stretch of hockey. For Gallant, the solution for getting this trio more ice time and better situations is simply to keep them together.
The ‘Kids Line,’ as they are called, played 19 games together in the postseason. At five-on-five, they had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 54.17 and an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 52.29%. The line outscored their opponents 10-5 over 19 games and dominated during the playoff run, per Natural Stat Trick.
During the regular season, this line spent 28 minutes together for a CF% of 54.55. Although that sample is minuscule, they seemed to enjoy playing with each other. They all have size and skill, while Lafreniere and Kakko have a more complete offensive game, while Chytil has a phenomenal shot.
Entering their third season as teammates, their similarity in age and complementary play styles should make them dynamic, which is why Gallant seems keen on keeping them on a line together.
Gallant Must Give the ‘Kids Line’ Ice Time
Ice time has been hard for Lafreniere, Chytil, and Kakko to come by. The latter led the trio with 15:27 average ice time (TOI) per game, while Lafreniere (13:59) and Filip Chytil (13:11) failed to crack 14 minutes a night. In the postseason, despite their success, Lafreniere averaged 14:02 TOI, Chytil 13:24, and Kakko 12:02. When the Rangers were defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6, Kakko was in the press box as a healthy scratch.
Heading into the 2022-23 season, the Rangers’ bench boss must realize that the ‘Kids Line’ possesses a ton of talent and could be lethal if given more opportunity. Their ice time needs to be consistently at 15 minutes a night, which is easily achievable with increased ice time on the second power-play unit as well.
It is a delicate balance, as Panarin, Zibanejad, Trocheck, and Kreider all need their fair share of ice time, too, especially since they are the team’s main offensive producers (from ‘Rangers’ Vincent Trocheck excited about Artemi Panarin pairing,’ New York Post, 09/22/22). Yet a reduction of one minute per game for the top two lines would give the third line two more minutes a game. That will increase their opportunities and production while not taking too much away from the top six.
Gallant will have to manage his minutes, which will help the team this season and in the future. It is rare that a first overall pick averages such little TOI, but with the depth in front of Lafreniere, that is the situation the Rangers are in. Just look across the Hudson at the New Jersey Devils’ first pick Jack Hughes who was averaging 19:34 TOI per game in 2021-22.
Lafreniere, Kakko, and Chytil won’t be given 19 minutes a night, but their production level should skyrocket if they are bumped up from 13 and change to 15-plus per night. With key departures, the ‘Kid Line’ could be the answer to replace any lost production, and for Gallant, although it is still subject to change, keeping that line together makes a lot of sense.