Top Storylines as Rangers Preseason Opens

The New York Rangers will open up their 90th anniversary season on home ice against the cross-town rival Islanders on Oct. 13, but more in the present, the Blueshirts will skate against their arch rivals from Brooklyn in tonight’s preseason opener at Madison Square Garden.

Many key Rangers — including Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, and Jimmy Vesey — will not be playing. However, the lineup deployed by head coach Alain Vigneault this evening will offer several compelling storylines.

Exciting Experiment up Front

Vigneault said at the beginning of training camp that he wanted to “experiment” quite a bit during the preseason. His first such experimentation of note has been to create an intriguing forward line combination centered by newcomer Mika Zibanejad, with Chris Kreider on the left wing and Russian rookie Pavel Buchnevich on the right. That threesome will represent the de-facto top line tonight against the Islanders.

Zibanejad, Kreider and Buchnevich are all highly skilled young players who should excel in Vigneault’s fast-paced style of play. Zibanejad (23), acquired from Ottawa this summer, is a former first-round pick coming off a career-best 51-point campaign in 2015-16. Kreider (25), a 2009 Rangers’ first-rounder, is a freakishly impressive athlete who has scored 21 goals in each of the past two seasons. Buchnevich (21), who arrives in New York after playing four years in the KHL, has long been considered the Rangers’ top prospect ever since being selected in the third round of the 2013 draft.

With Kreider’s combination of speed, strength and willingness to go to the net, the ice, in theory, should open up for Zibanejad and Buchnevich — a pair of very talented playmakers to do what they do best. Even with a roster that includes skilled forwards like Nash, Stepan, Zuccarello, Vesey, Brandon Pirri and Kevin Hayes, the Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich trio potentially could be the Rangers’ most exciting line combination.

However, to remain together, there needs to be consistent chemistry, work ethic and a willingness to play on the defensive side of the puck, as well. Zibanejad was brought to New York, in part, because he is a better 200-foot player than Derick Brassard, but both Kreider and Buchnevich will need to show they can play a strong two-way game, as well, for Vigneault to trust this trio with top-line minutes.

McIlrath Auditions for More Playing Time

Dylan McIlrath’s rookie season in the NHL a year ago was a tough one to completely judge. He appeared in 34 games, filling in capably when injuries struck down the likes of Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Ryan McDonagh at different points of the season; but Vigneault seemed reluctant to give the hulking 6-foot-5 defenseman playing time when the top six was healthy. That especially galled Rangers’ fans as both Girardi and the since-departed Dan Boyle struggled mightily at times in their own end of the ice, while the popular and largely dependable McIlrath watched from the press box.

McIlrath admitted the other day that his lack of opportunity as a rookie frustrated him. That is not stopping the 23-year-old from coming into camp ready to “prove that I am reliable and consistent…and am ready for a top-six role.”

Boyle’s departure opens up a spot on the right side of the Rangers defense. It is well documented how Vigneault prefers having three left-handed shots and three righties on the back end, so that would seem to work in the right-handed-shooting McIlrath’s favor. The coach added this week that although lefties McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Nick Holden can play the right side, they all are more comfortable on their natural side, which would also seem to favor McIlrath.

Add to the mix that McIlrath is the most physical player on the team, and it would seem his chance of earning a top-six spot is solid.

Yet, it is clear that Vigneault is not 100 percent sold on the 2010 first rounder. His skating and foot speed have improved in recent years, but are not a strong suit of McIlrath’s game, and that is worrisome to the coach. McIlrath’s consistency and decision-making also are worrisome in the eyes of Vigneault.

These preseason games, beginning with tonight’s against the Islanders, are extremely important, for McIlrath to finally win over his head coach.

On the Bubble

Training camp has been underway for less than a week, and this is only the first of six preseason games to be played, but it’s already a critical time for several players who are clearly on the bubble of either making the opening-night roster or not.

Up front, rugged winger Tanner Glass — a favorite of Vigneault’s though most certainly not one of the Blueshirts Faithful — is again playing for his Rangers’ life. The same scenario was in place a year ago and, despite a brief stint in the minors, Glass persevered with a strong campaign for the Rangers in which he was among the league leaders in hits.

With Vigneault stating his preference for three skilled offensive lines and a solid defensive-minded fourth line, Glass, Josh Jooris and Max Lapierre, who is in camp on an invite, will all look to make a solid first impression tonight in the battle to earn one of the three spots on that fourth line.

Lapierre, another Vigneault favorite from their days together in Vancouver, is one to watch closely in camp. He played in Sweden and Switzerland last season, but is an experienced, big, defensive-minded center, who is still only 31-years-old.

On defense, Adam Clendening will try to stake a claim to one of the seven or eight spots available for opening night. He is an offensive-minded blueliner who is also a right-handed shot — two areas that should catch Vigneault’s attention. The soon-to-be 24-year-old has played for four teams in two seasons and has 50 games of NHL experience. He needs to prove he is reliable defensively, can potentially help the Rangers’ power play, and is not just a really good AHL player, but capable of being an NHL regular, too.