The competition for the spot on the left side of the third defensive duo will be a major focus when Eastern Conference finalists Rangers hit the ice on Thursday on the first day of training camp. Except for the addition of late veterans either by experience or by concessions, the characters that should come down to Libor Hajek, Zac Jones or Matt Robertson.
But I’m also very interested in how the Blues aim to fill in the right wing on the line of contact Mika Zibanegad and Chris Kreider I in the wake of Frank Vatrano’s free-agent exit to Anaheim.
I kind of doubt that Gerard Gallant intends to keep the Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko Kid streak intact, although that would be Mine preference. Heck, the head coach broke them down in Game Six of Elimination against Tampa Bay in order to bring Dryden Hunt — a healthy scratcher for the previous 16 competitions — into the lineup.
Thus, chances are that Lafreniere, whose 25 games with Zibanejad and Kreider last season are the most of any winger, will get his first crack at the plum assignment. Yes, that would mean a permanent switch to his far flank for the left-footed shooter who will turn 21 on October 11, the day the season begins against Lightning at the Garden, but it seems to me that the issue has been greatly exaggerated.
Players switch sides all the time. It shouldn’t be a bargain. If it somehow becomes the problem, the first overall pick for 2020 will remain the third-line left winger as long as Kreider and Artemi Panarin remain at the club.
Galant has shown that he is open to trying the Zibanegad-Krider line. In addition to Lafreniere’s 25 games, Kakko has 23 cracks in it. Then Vatrano, who acquired it five days before the deadline from Florida for the price of a fourth player deal, was tied for 93rd and 20th in 17 regular season games and 18 playoffs.
You probably don’t remember this, because I didn’t until I checked my notes, but Galant broke Zipanegad and Crider for Game 6 in Tampa. Lafreniere opened on the left with Zibanejad and Vatrano while Kreider slipped into Unit Three with Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. Groups later passed through the mixer when Ryan Strom’s pelvic injury limited his icy time before being forced out of the game after the second half.
But you certainly remember how Galant preached the fact that Vatrano provided Zibanegad and Cryder with a right-sided shooter. The coach talked about it over and over. And the numbers are indicative of it, because in a team that ranked 30th in the NHL on five shots on five per game, Vatrano led Rangers with 9.94 shots per 60 minutes among players who played in at least 10 games.
Lafreniere scored at 5.53 per 60 ahead of only Goodrow’s 5.3, Kakko’s 5.16 and Sammy Blais 4.95. The Blais season, of course, ended on November 14 when it was cut short by the currently unemployed PK Subban.
Now, Lafreniere’s number has undoubtedly been affected by playing nearly half of the year with Chytil, who is hardly a major sender. But number 13 is not a first-person shooter, then ask questions later in the Vatrano mold. Obviously, Kakko is not.
So, if this is the quality Rangers are looking for in this spot, Lavrinier will either have to change his playing style a bit, or the team may have to think… Who?
Vitaly Kravtsov, Brennan Usman or Will Coyle? Unlikely, though I would be fascinated to see what Osman (or Coyle) might be able to do there if I had the opportunity. This would also necessitate a move to the far flank.
By the way, Bliss has played for the top spot in his last three matches. And that’s also about No. 91: he’s never played in 15 games on the fourth streak.
The hard reality of the cover
Tyler Motte, a valuable fourth-line item during the playoffs, hit the open market over the summer in search of a multi-year contract that would fit the top nine forwards, for over $2.5 million each. This eliminated the Rangers from day one. You may have noticed that the other 31 teams in the league have passed as well. Flat cover and a CBA stretch cut the knees of players like Mott.
By the time the 27-year-old signed a one-year, $1.35 million deal with Ottawa late last week, the Blueshirts were closed even if they had the opportunity to match them. The Rangers count nearly a million dollars in cover space with a 22-man roster that includes an extra attacker and a backup man.
no. Barring the injury, both will not be on the team. That is, if either of them makes it. Gauthier enters as the longest shot as Hunt faces competition from Jimmy Vesey, in camp on a PTO (professional trial), for a spot.
Vesey’s feature is his ability to kill penalties. The Rangers lost three homicide specialists to free agency in Cobb, Mott and Kevin Rooney.
Incidentally, we have good authority that Mott Camp never discussed the possibility of signing a one-year deal in the $1.35 million price range with GM Chris Drury at any time and those talks ended early in the summer.
Next stop, Hartford?
Gustav Rydal, the 28-year-old signed Swedish agent who could compete for the role of fourth-line center and/or 13th forward, does not require him to waive the AHL Wolf Pack designation. We are told that he has expressed a willingness to go to Hartford, if necessary.
Blueshirts signed veteran defender Matt Bartkowski to the PTO on Monday. The 34-year-old left-footed player has a total of 256 NHL games on his resume, but only three over the past three seasons while he was a member of the Minnesota and Pittsburgh organizations. Bartkowski spent his entire last season playing for AHL Wilkes-Barre.
If Hajik and Jones can’t beat Bartkowski in the camp in competition for that spot on the left, something will be wrong.