Today we are going to be talking about our unheralded, but no less vital bottom six forwards. Prior to Tortorella’s arrival, the Rangers bottom six was typically composed of too many wannabe skill players like Matt Cullen, Marcel Hossa, etc. The last few years we finally started to value players who understood that their role is to forecheck, backcheck, hit, score dirty goals, and protect their teammates.
Before we get started, let me just reiterate these grades are based on these respective players executing their specific roles within our team concept.
Brian Boyle: Boyle has much improved at faceoffs this season (51.5% vs. 48.5%) and it’s a big reason why the Hagelin-Boyle-Mitchell line was out possessing the opposition. He’s gotten some flak for his offense being down, but he’s pretty much doing everything defensively you could ask from a third line center. He forechecks, he blocks shots, and he doesn’t turn the puck over. I would like to see him lay people out a little more often given his size.
With that said, we are going to need more scoring from our bottom six in the second half and beyond. Boyle is on pace for 4 goals and 16 points, which is down from last season’s 21 goals and 35 points. Icetime isn’t much of an excuse as his avg. icetime last season was 15 mins and change. This season he is skating 14 mins and change. Essentially he’s playing one less shift per game. Grade: B
Ruslan Fedotenko: Feds has been one of the most reliable trenchmen in the game for the past 10 years. Every season he gives you steady corner play, second chance efforts, and 30 points give or take. Most of his strengths are often overlooked because he’s not a puck carrier or a fighter, but he is a strategic insertion in this lineup and he executes Tortorella’s puck pursuit system to a T. The only reason I didn’t grade him higher was because he played on the second line for a while and did squat with it and he could stand to be more physical when playing in a bottom 6 role. Grade: B-
Carl Hagelin: Hagelin is a bottom six player this season, but he won’t be next season. He may not even be a bottom sixer by the end of this season thanks to his explosiveness, escapeability, and positional awareness. As he’s gained more experience, he has also gained more trust from his coach, which is evident in the increase in situations he is being utilized.
The question really is what is this kid’s ceiling? It’s hard to know at this point, but what really impresses me about Hagelin’s game is that his puck handling keeps up with his foot speed. Rico Fata could skate like the wind too, but he had no hands.
Many will write that Hagelin is too small or that he needs to bulk up. To which I say, BS! How many times have you seen him get pancaked and lose the puck? Grade: A
John Mitchell: While many of Avery’s supporters blame his current status on Rupp and Erik Christensen, Mitchell too deserves culpability. Of course Mitchell deserves a spot on this roster over Avery, so you won’t hear any complaints from me.
Mitchell has been a possession monster for us, as he currently leads the team in relative corsi. He’s also been dynamite on the draw (FO 58.6%), he’s quick, and he plays gritty without taking dumb penalties. I’m not sure who scouted this guy in Toronto, but whoever it was deserves credit. Like a glove! Grade: B+
Brandon Prust: He really is the essence of what fourth line hockey is all about. It’s not about the fighting. It’s the blocking of shots, the making the opposing defensemen pay on icings, protecting teammates, etc. Straight up enforcers are slowly becoming extinct and guys like Prust, who can actually skate, are taking over. Hopefully he stays healthy, as will need him when we make a run. I would like to see him improve on the forecheck, as I thought he was better in that regard last season. Grade: B-
Mike Rupp: Many of our readers hated this signing and even I was on the fence, as I was skeptical about Rupp’s skating. But observing him since his return and seeing on 24/7 how Torts leaned on Rupp in the locker room revealed to me his importance to this hockey club.
Look, Rupp isn’t going to score 2 goals a game, he isn’t going to goad guys into fighting, and he isn’t ever going to replace Avery’s jersey sales. Still, fans should appreciate him for standing up for Del Zotto when he got sucker punched and for not letting Prust fight every heavyweight. They should also realize this guy can win faceoffs (54.5%), he’s plays an honest, hardworking game, and he’s not going to cost us with bad turnovers and bad penalties. Above all else, he’s coachable and he has a ring. Grade: B
Sean Avery, Erik Christensen, Wojtek Wolski: I can’t grade them as they’ve barely played and I doubt they will see Garden ice unless someone gets injured. I will say this though, Christensen & Wolski both seem like good character guys and both have some skill. If they get their chance, they have to learn to play below the dots & along the boards. Producing only when the defense forgets about them isn’t going to cut it in this system. Grade: Whatever