As the Blueshirts near the halfway point of the season, they are beginning to see some consistency in the line combinations after struggling to recover after some turnover in the offseason. In last years Stanley Cup Finals bound season, then first year coach Alain Vigneault found his line combinations around this same time of year and those lines would stay mostly untouched for the following 6 months and 60 games.
At this point the top two lines seem clear and set for the time being. The top unit maintains the Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello combination that was so successful with Benoit Pouliot last season and replaces the defunct forward with a major upgrade in Rick Nash who has thrived with his new line mates to the tune of second in the league in scoring while elevating this line to among the most productive in the league. The second unit added last years late addition Martin St. Louis to Nash’s former linemates Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider for a combination that is starting to find its groove with the sense of repetition that comes with playing together. The third forward line has two spots taken with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin being bonafide regulars in the lineup but that is where the guessing game begins.
On the blue line, the early health issues have subsided as of now and with a fully healthy lineup there are seven defenseman and six spots. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are getting into a rhythm that will be integral to the team’s success. Dan Boyle, who took a while to get acclimated but has begun to find his game in New York, is now healthy and paired with back line stalwart Marc Staal. The third line features this year’s biggest surprise in Kevin Klein and a sixth spot that is up for grabs. Without further ado, here are the competitions going on to fill out the Rangers fully active roster:
The Last Defensive Spot:
Going into the season there was not much question about who would be on the Rangers back end with five starters returning and Dan Boyle being the clear replacement for the departed Anton Stralman. Injuries derailed that secure backcheck make up and in the absence of Boyle and the captain a relative unknown in Matt Hunwick played the strongest hockey of his career and has challenged John Moore for the final available spot. Moore has been disappointing in this young season with several costly penalties and even a suspension. Being five years younger than Hunwick gives Moore the advantage of more potential but with his contract coming up this offseason it may not be worth it to give him the raise he will likely be seeking for a third line spot when Hunwick has filled in admirably when injuries have given him a window. All contract and long run talk aside, for now Hunwick is simply playing better hockey than Moore, but then again with a season and change of mostly consistent playing time, it is Moore’s spot to lose.
The Third Line Opening:
Alongside Hayes and Hagelin has been a rotating cast of characters. One of the competitors for these openings, Anthony Duclair has been sent back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League adding a tad more clarity to the decisions at hand. Two of the front runners for the highest available forward placement are Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller. Both forwards were on the opening day roster for the second straight year this year but this time around, unlike last season, are looking to keep that spot through the dog days and into the playoff push and postseason. Both Fast and Miller have shown vast improvement from last season with the former being an asset on the forecheck as well as the backcheck and the latter finally seeming to come into his own as the scoring threat Rangers fans have seen in the XL Center and hoped to see in the Garden. The third possible compliment to Hagelin and Hayes is veteran Lee Stempniak. Stempniak started the season red hot but has since cooled off and thus finds himself having to fight his way out of the healthy scratch list against two forwards who are nearly a decade his junior. Stempniak was among the numerous winger signings the Rangers made this offseason in case they didn’t have the ability to promote within and replace the handful of openings that became available. While one of these three will get the final scoring line spot, the checking line also has an opening or two depending on who you ask.
When AV makes his final decision about the third line he will have to figure out how to round out the space around written in stone center Dominic Moore. Tanner Glass is also in the mix but likely only for the fourth line, having appeared in more games this year than both Miller and Fast and spending his time exclusively on the checking unit. This is likely due to two attributes he brings that are scarce on the current roster, experience and physicality. That being said he will have to fend off the two forwards who lose out in the Hags/Hayes line sweepstakes, both of which will be younger and more offensively capable. So it comes down to simple arithmetic, three forward openings for four forwards. It will be interesting to see when and how these lines shake out.