Coming off a heartbreaking Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers are reloading for another run at the Stanley Cup. With the core of the team intact, minus the retirement of Martin St. Louis and the trade of Carl Hagelin for salary cap reasons, the Blueshirts have made a few minor moves to ready themselves for the 2015-16 season.
With these transactions, the Rangers now find themselves with a surplus of forwards, so their opening night lineup is far from clear. This, however, is really the club’s biggest concern going into the new season, and that’s great news.
It’s a cliche but it’s true: You can never have too much depth. That notion is especially true in today’s NHL, where the most successful teams are able to roll four lines and six defensemen. The Rangers will be able to do just that.
With the return of winger Mats Zuccarello from a scary injury suffered in the first round of last season’s playoffs, New York’s first line is set with him, criminally underrated center Derick Brassard, and 42-goal scorer Rick Nash. After that, the Rangers roll out the freshly re-signed Derek Stepan, the “freak of nature” Chris Kreider, and any of a number of options to round out that line. Perhaps it’s the 22-year-old J.T. Miller, a former first-round pick who finally cemented his spot in the NHL last season. Or the club could move star-in-the-making Kevin Hayes from center to right wing, since he is capable of playing either position.
If the Rangers do indeed move Hayes to the wing, they can still use the reliable Dominic Moore and recent free agent acquisition Jarret Stoll — a noted face-off extraordinaire — at center. The remaining forwards are Emerson Etem, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, Viktor Stalberg, and…oh yeah, Tanner Glass.
That’s a total of 14 forwards trying to fit into 12 slots. Therein lies the Rangers’ “problem.” A case to be a regular in the lineup could be made for every one of these players
except for Glass. Fast is basically guaranteed a spot, given his performance late in the past regular season and in the postseason. Etem, a former first-round pick acquired in the Hagelin trade, needs to be given a proper opportunity to shine and so will likely get a shot as a top-nine forward.
A regular spot in the lineup is far from a guarantee for Stoll, but one has to think the Rangers will give him every opportunity because of his veteran leadership, skill in the face-off circle (an area of weakness for the Blueshirts), and prowess on the penalty kill — something that needs to be shored up with the loss of Hagelin. Lindberg has nothing left to prove in the AHL, and could add a lot of value to the Rangers’ lineup as a solid two-way player.
That leaves Stalberg and Glass. Stalberg could thrive in a fourth-line role, but there might not be room for him consistently. Glass’s deficiencies have been well-documented, and the Rangers could look to move him somehow now that they have so much depth, but head coach Alain Vigneault’s inexplicable liking of the pugilist could keep him in the lineup on at least a semi-regular basis.
Predicting the Lineup
Not only are the Rangers deep at forward, but they are also very strong on the backend, anchored by the top pairing of captain Ryan McDonagh and the declining-but-still-solid Dan Girardi. Then there’s Keith Yandle, who could contribute to the club in a big way in his first full season with them, and veteran Dan Boyle, who still has something left in the tank.
Marc Staal and Kevin Klein round out the Rangers’ top six defensemen. They then have depth with the newly signed Raphael Diaz, in his second stint on Broadway, and former number 10 pick Dylan McIlrath, who figures to be looking at his last shot with the Rangers after signing a one year, a one-way contract. This means he would have to pass through waivers to go back to the AHL. Speaking of the AHL, another former first-rounder, Brady Skjei, is knocking on the door of a roster spot with the big club.
So what will the Rangers’ do with all of their options? It’s hard to say at this point, with training camp still several weeks away, but I could see the Rangers icing a lineup at the start of the year that excludes Stalberg and Glass. I could also see them eventually trading Kevin Klein to open up a spot for McIlrath or Skjei, and to provide salary cap relief for next off-season, when Kreider and Hayes will have to be re-signed.
In any event, training camp still has to happen, and the Rangers have a good problem on their hands, as the potential bottom-six forwards will all compete to earn consistent lineup spots. New York also has insurance for when injuries will inevitably occur, so they are in a solid position as the new season approaches.