When Chris Drury went down with a broken finger, he inadvertently kept some current Rangers on the roster to replace him in the lineup. Now that he is skating in full gear and shooting again, it seems likely he will return sooner than expected. He will definitely miss tonight’s opener against Buffalo, but there is a strong possibility he will play Monday afternoon against the Islanders. The Rangers have a few roster issues at hand when Drury does return, some are easy decisions, and some are much more difficult.
When Drury is activated off injured reserve, one of Todd White or Tim Kennedy will need to be sent to Hartford. White is the older, more expensive ($2.375 million cap hit), and returning from injury. Those are three things that don’t work in his favor. What does work in his favor is his offensive skill, which could provide useful if Vinny Prospal is out longer than expected. There are positives and negatives of both players sticking around, but once one or both are sent to the AHL, it is more than likely a permanent move. Although both cleared waivers in the offseason, it is extremely unlikely that they would pass through re-entry waivers, at a 50% discount to other teams. Whoever is sent to Hartford is sent there for good. Of course, should Prospal return from injury, this point becomes moot.
Probably the most difficult decision to make for the Rangers is who will be scratched once Drury, who is capable of playing both center and left wing, comes back. The smart money would be on Erik Christensen getting the Petr Prucha treatment, as he had a relatively underwhelming preseason, considering most of his ice time was spent with Marian Gaborik and Alex Frolov. It looks like Christensen has one game to prove himself, or else he could find himself watching games from the press box. Another player on thin ice during the summer, but who seems to have earned his spot on the third line, is Sean Avery. Avery, like Wade Redden, was given clear instructions by coach John Tortorella about his role. Avery got the message, but any slip in play could see Avery sitting in the press box. The Rangers could always play the numbers game, like they did with Ryan McDonagh earlier, and send down someone who doesn’t need to clear waivers. Unfortunately, that someone is Derek Stepan.
Once the decision about who to scratch is made, the Rangers then need to re-adjust their lines. It doesn’t appear that Drury will be slotted in as the top line center, should Christensen be the one that is scratched. At that point, does the coach put the weight of a season on the shoulders of rookie Derek Stepan, who clicked with Frolov and Gaborik in the preseason? Does he hand that role to Brandon Dubinsky, who Tortorella believes is better suited on the wing? Once the top line center is decided, then the coach needs to adjust the rest of the combinations. The Dubinsky-Artem Anisimov-Ryan Callahan line looked very good in the preseason, as did the Avery-Stepan-Ruslan Fedotenko combination. Ironically enough, the only combination that seems to be safe from realignment is the fourth line of Derek Boogaard-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust. Of course, they are only safe from the line juggling as long as one of them doesn’t get scratched.
The natural decision here is to platoon a combination of the scratch from the top nine and a fourth line player. By carrying extra forwards, the Rangers give themselves the opportunity to mix and match against opponents. For example, against a more skilled team like Buffalo, the Rangers may want to scratch one of Boogaard or Boyle, and insert a more athletic skater. Against the Flyers, it seems more prudent to dress all three tough guys to counter the mean streak that the Flyers have.
The Rangers don’t necessarily need to keep one player scratched for a prolonged amount of time. The Blueshirts, for the first time in a while, have roster flexibility, and the ability to match up to their opponents strengths and weaknesses. Sure, one player is going to be knocked off the top-nine once Drury returns, but that gives the Rangers team more of a chance to compete with the flexibility that arises. Even more flexibility is given when considering the possible call ups in Hartford, specifically Dale Weise and Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. Many teams would love to have this “problem” of roster flexibility that the Rangers have. They may not have a “#1″ center, but they definitely have the depth behind them to compete this season.