Rangers’ New Kreider/Trocheck Pairing Creates Lineup Depth

One can’t help but wonder whether Mika Zibanejad is feeling a little jealous lately.

The New York Rangers center has watched his long-time linemate, Chris Kreider, fall into a budding new bromance – from an on-ice chemistry perspective, of course – with newcomer Vincent Trocheck, the duo finding the kind of synergy that Kreider and Zibanejad long enjoyed as two-thirds of what was the Blueshirts’ top line for years.

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OK, obviously all in fun. Surely Zibanejad is happy over the Kreider-Trocheck partnership, which though in its early stages, has been a study in players who embrace similar styles and personalities and most importantly, could end up giving the Rangers formidable depth through their top three forward units.

Vincent Trocheck New York Rangers
Rangers center Vincent Trocheck (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Trocheck arrived in New York as the Rangers’ big free-agent acquisition of last offseason, replacing the departed Ryan Strome as the supposed No. 2 center. After signing a seven-year, $39 milion contract, the 10-year veteran said that one of the big draws for him to pull on a Blueshirt was the chance to play with star winger Artemi Panarin, his expected running mate.

That partnership, though, never got off the ground, Trocheck’s relentless, puck-possessing ways appearing less than compatible with Panarin’s artistic, improvisational creativity. Coach Gerard Gallant stuck with the arrangement for much of the first third of the season, waiting for Trocheck to become fully comfortable in his new surroundings and the pair to click.

Gallant Knew His Line Combinations Had to Change

More than just that pairing, though, wasn’t working for the entire team through a staggering start, the line combinations seemingly ill fits. Gallant finally gave in to the obvious Dec. 5, when the Rangers, 11-10-5 and having lost five of six, fell behind 4-3 to the St. Louis Blues after a putrid second period.

The coach made big mid-game moves, elevating Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko to Zibanejad’s line and dropping Kreider to a unit with Barclay Goodrow and Jimmy Vesey. Though Kreider didn’t join up with Trocheck in that contest, the Blueshirts rallied for a 6-4 victory, affirming Gallant’s instinct that the alignments he had been using weren’t optimal.

The coach eventually decided to put Panarin with Zibanejad, a move he had resisted until recently in the name of balance in the top six, and Kreider with Trocheck while he also reunited the Kid Line. Though much has been made of captain Jacob Trouba’s inspirational helmet toss after a lackluster loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 3, it’s likely that Gallant’s acceptance of the need for different lineups has played just as big a role in his team’s turnaround, the Rangers winning eight of nine going into the Christmas break.

The Kreider-Trocheck union has been a significant factor in that. The pairing seems more natural, both players possessing straight-ahead, no-nonsense approaches – not to mention their similarly overt on-ice intensity. The results have been stark since Dec. 12, when both players helped to power a comeback in an exhilarating 4-3 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils. Starting with that game, Trocheck has three goals and seven assists in a six-game point streak, while Kreider has scored three times in that span. Frequent linemate Jimmy Vesey picked up three goals and an assist over those games.

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In the Rangers’ only loss in the past nine, 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 20, Kreider scored twice off of primary assists from Trocheck, the center setting up the big left wing with perfect passes. In 113 minutes and 55 seconds together at even strength, the duo has posted a 53.0 Corsi for percentage and has been on the ice for six goals for and three against, with an expected goals for mark of 52.9.

Rangers’ New Four Lines Have Excellent Underlying Numbers

Are Kreider and Trocheck the new power couple on Rangers? Time will tell. If so, their line might help change the season outlook for these Blueshirts. With their current top three forward units potent and diverse, the Rangers appear much more difficult to defend. Zibanejad and Panarin are coming along, posting a 50.7 CF% and 52.1 GF%. Even better, Vitali Kravtsov supplanted Goodrow on their line mid-game during the Rangers’ 5-3 win over the New York Islanders on Dec. 22, and that trio has a 75.0 CF% and 93.6 GF% in about 13 minutes together. There might be big growth potential there.

Related: Rangers’ Kreider Quietly Having Another Big Season

With old (or, young) friends Lafreniere, Kakko and Filip Chytil back together, and a fourth line that was dominant against the Isles when Goodrow joined Julien Gauthier and Jonny Brodzinski, it’s possible Gallant has finally found the combinations that work.

Chris Kreider New York Rangers
Rangers forward Chris Kreider (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Gallant is certainly hoping Zibanejad is getting over the “breakup.” Though he didn’t score a goal in seven games leading into the Blueshirts’ Christmas break, Zibanejad has recorded six assists in that span. If the team’s No. 1 center can successfully move on to a new on-ice running mate while Kreider and Trocheck build their chemistry, it could help the Rangers become the team they hoped could take the next step from last season and advance beyond the Eastern Conference Final next spring.