It doesn’t matter if you liked what happened on Tuesday or hated what happened on Tuesday. We are all Ranger fans, and we will all cheer for the team. What we can all agree on, based solely on numbers, is that some of the kids in Hartford are going to need to step up and take a roster spot. When I say numbers, I mean this:
In: Dan Boyle, Tanner Glass, Mike Kostka (AHL: Steve Kampfer, Matt Hunwick, Chris Mueller, Chris Bourque, Cedrick Desjardins)
Out: Anton Stralman, Derek Dorsett, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Raphael Diaz, Justin Falk
Seven NHL players left the Rangers on July 1, and only three came back. The defense was more or less a one-for-one swap, with Boyle replacing Stralman and Kostka replacing Diaz (Falk I consider to be a #8 defenseman at this point). So, barring any trades, the Rangers are pretty much done with the defense. It is also unlikely we see Dylan McIlrath or Conor Allen on Broadway this year. The roster numbers just don’t work.
As for the forwards, one forward came in and four left via free agency. If you assume Glass takes Boyle’s spot on Dominic Moore’s left, that leaves two RW spots open for competition (or a 3LW and 4RW, as Mats Zuccarello can play both sides), and a 2C/3C. There are really only three names that come to mind when it comes to kids on the cusp: J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, and Oscar Lindberg.
Miller we know all too well. He’s got some great “grit” and “determination,” but he’s tire fire away from the puck. That’s nothing to worry about, as he’s just 21 years of age. Chris Kreider struggled mightily without the puck, but he put it all together this season to become a mainstay on the first line. Miller doesn’t have first line potential like Kreider, but he has middle-six potential if he can find a way to play competent hockey in his own end. He can play center and wing, giving the Rangers some options if he earns his spot.
The problem with Miller is that, based on the way Alain Vigneault deploys his fourth line (in the defensive zone), he’s miscast as a fourth liner. That’s not a bad thing, he just doesn’t excel in the defensive aspect of the game. AV can use him on the third line in a scoring role, but only if he proves that he has moved beyond his unmitigated disaster in the DZ days.
Lindberg is a bit of an unknown at the NHL level. But we know three things about the young Swede: He’s great on face offs, he’s great defensively, and he’s mobile. He had a big offensive outburst in his final season in Sweden, but scouts say that his offense won’t necessarily transfer over to the NHL. He put up 18-26-44 last season with Hartford though, so he obviously has some offensive touch. If he’s used on an AV fourth line, expect him to get a boatload of DZ starts with Moore.
Fast is probably the most NHL ready. He didn’t look out of place when he made the team out of camp last September. He didn’t look out of place when he played in the playoffs briefly. He’s my lock for the team next year. Of course, we all thought Kreider was a lock out of camp last September, but he was cut before forcing his way back on the roster. So what do I know anyway?
There are some dark horses: Ryan Bourque has been getting review ranging from NHL-ready to AHLer for life. Danny Kristo can figure out how to play defense (he’s worse than Miller in the DZ, and that’s being kind). Anthony Duclair has unreal skill and speed. There are always the undrafted UFAs (Mat Bodie, Ryan Haggerty, etc), but those are more likely to turn out like Matt Gilroy than Dan Girardi.
No matter which way you look at it, the cap crunch has forced the Rangers to look within to fill some significant holes on the roster. The positive side to the kids is that they are cheap and have the potential to be productive. Then again, potential is a very important word. Competition breeds improvement, and right now the kids have no competition.