Rangers Could Have Another Dynamic 3rd Line if Kravtsov Joins Chytil

One of the more memorable images from the New York Rangers’ run to the 2022 Eastern Conference Final will always be the play of the Kid Line, the dynamic third forward unit that more than a few times was the Blueshirts’ best trio up front during that postseason.

The success of that group, however, makes it easy to forget that perhaps the most vexing challenge of coach Gerard Gallant’s first season behind the Madison Square Garden bench was finding an effective third line – a conundrum that persisted for much of the season, with Gallant cycling through a myriad of combinations as he searched for a grouping that could contribute at a meaningful level.

Filip Chytil New York Rangers
Rangers third-line center Filip Chytil (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The coach was unable to find one until, perhaps out of desperation, he put high-end youngsters Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko together just before the end of the regular season, and in the process unearthed some magic that helped the Rangers come within two wins of the Stanley Cup Final.

The confident, highly-productive playoff performance, however, has contributed to graduations for Lafreniere and Kakko into the top six. It’s a welcome and expected development for the pair of top-two overall draft picks. It also means that Gallant could be right back where he started a year ago when it comes to putting together a quality third forward unit. With the bar being raised after last season’s deep postseason run, it’s not a problem that the coach can afford to spend the season revisiting.

Effective Third Line Eluded Gallant for Most of Last Season

Gallant tried pretty much everyone at the wing spots around Chytil, the most consistent member of the third line last season. Julien Gauthier, Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt and Greg McKegg took their turns. AHLers Jonny Brodzinski, Tim Gettinger and Morgan Barron formed a brawny line for a few games amidst injuries. Nothing really worked.

In fact, the Rangers’ trade-deadline pickups of Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano, both of whom ended playing on the top two lines, were made with an eye on at least one of them helping to finally bring productivity to the third unit. The Kid Line’s emergence eventually allowed both forwards to play up in the lineup, but the acquisitions were a testament to Gallant’s inability to find viable in-house solutions to deepen a top-heavy roster, one that despite the third-line issues piled up 110 points during the regular season.

Filip Chytil New York Rangers
Chytil reacts after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The “problem” for 2022-23 is that the kids look like they’re growing up. With Lafreniere apparently finding chemistry on the right side of Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, and Kakko so far seemingly having made a leap riding shotgun with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, Gallant doesn’t have the option of throwing together three more high-ceilinged prospects to solve the problem this season.

The fact is, with Copp and Vatrano gone via free agency in the offseason, the Rangers are back to the depth issues at forward that plagued them last season before bringing in the reinforcements at the deadline. While that also affected the top two units last season – Hunt had to be used extensively on Panarin’s right wing – it could be the third unit that again bears the brunt of a dearth of appropriate candidates in 2022-23.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin Line off to Strong Start

Those problems have already reared their ugly head, with the loss of young winger Vitali Kravtsov to an upper-body injury early in the season opener causing some chaos. Chytil, a highly-skilled offensive center, now finds himself flanked by grinders Sammy Blais and Goodrow.

It’s of course nothing new for Chytil, who spoke last season about trying his best to adapt to his constantly rotating linemates. That situation was hardly ideal for the 23-year-old, however, given that he finally started delivering on his considerably potential when teamed with consistent, skilled running partners in Lafreniere and Kakko during the playoffs.

The Rangers certainly want to find a way to develop the same type of rhythm and familiarity for Chytil, whose contributions will be needed if the club wants to make another deep playoff run in the spring. It’s why the Blueshirts’ best potential option to complement him on the third line is to hope for a productive and dependable season from Kravtsov.

Vitali Kravtsov New York Rangers
Rangers winger Vitali Kravtsov (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The ninth overall pick in the 2018 draft and the Rangers have put the saga that jeopardized Kravtsov’s chances of playing on Broadway in the past, but this season isn’t off to a good start on the ice with the 22-year-old already sidelined. The coaching staff is hoping the right winger’s absence will be a short one, as Kravtsov – should he find himself on the third unit when he returns – has the toolbox to help re-create a semblance of Kid Line excitement this season.

Kravtsov’s Offense-First Game Should Fit Well With Chytil’s

Kravtsov’s game tracks closely with those of Lafreniere and Kakko. Yet another talented winger who arrived amidst the Rangers’ four-year rebuilding effort, the idea of Kravtsov joining forces with Chytil and a complementary player such as Blais at least stirs hope of a third line that can lengthen the roster and provide the secondary scoring that was so crucial during the postseason.

Kravtsov opened this season on Panarin’s line, but his injury and the strong play of Lafreniere and Kakko at the top two right-wing spots since might mean he’s indeed ticketed for an assignment with Chytil. With Kravtsov’s size, powerful skating and big shot combining with Chytil’s ability to gain zone entry and break down a defense, the potential for something special – or at least, better than what the Rangers got from their third line for most of last season – exists.

Sammy Blais, New York Rangers
Sammy Blais has been manning the left side of the third line (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kravtsov, though, wasn’t in the lineup Thursday for the Rangers’ desultory 3-2 overtime home loss to the previously winless San Jose Sharks. That could become a long-term trend, because he’ll effectively have to compete for a spot with several bottom-six forwards to get on the ice going forward.

The Rangers waived Hunt on Thursday (he was claimed by the Colorado Avalanche) in large part to start accumulating salary cap space with an eye toward the trade deadline. Getting him off the roster was significant, as it will leave the club with an estimated $4 million at the deadline to bring in reinforcements for the playoffs. It also leaves the Blueshirts with just one spare forward – and the internal belief has to be that it won’t be ideal if Kravtsov is always that extra forward.

Rangers’ Current Third Line Isn’t a Recipe for Long-Term Success

Goodrow can and does play up in the lineup as needed, but he seems like a short-term solution on Chytil’s line, better suited to be a part of a grinding and defense-focused fourth line, either on the wing or at center. The Rangers need offense from the third unit, and though Chytil did score Thursday, expecting the current grouping of he, Goodrow and Blais to do that consistently feels like a tall order as a mismatched trio in need of more skill on the wings.

Also vying for time are Jimmy Vesey, the resurgent NHLer back for a second stint with the Rangers who was signed mostly for his penalty-killing prowess and not his offense. Ryan Carpenter, a fourth-line center and penalty killer who played for Gallant with the Vegas Golden Knights and was added in the offseason, has played in four of the first five games.

Barclay Goodrow New York Rangers
Rangers forward Barclay Goodrow (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If Kravtsov comes back in, a bottom-sixer will need to go out. Healthy competition, yes, but again, it seems that two offensive players and one grinder playing regularly would be the ideal alignment for the third unit if the Rangers want to approximate the impact of the Kid Line this season.

Rotating Vesey, Carpenter, fourth-line staple Ryan Reaves and perhaps Blais, while giving Kravtsov every opportunity to establish himself on Chytil’s right side, might be the best course of action for Gallant. The coach has occasionally put the Kid Line back together for a shift or two over the first five games, but it doesn’t appear that he feels as if doing it consistently is in the best long-term interests of his lineup.

Gallant surely wants to avoid the same season-long third-line headaches from last season. Taking a chance on Kravtsov’s high ceiling would seem to be the best chance for he and the Rangers to do so in 2022-23.

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