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Category: Forwards

Making sense of yesterday’s line combinations

(Andy Clark/Reuters)

(Andy Clark/Reuters)

When the new line combinations were made public knowledge during yesterday’s practice, a lot of questions and a lot of heat were directed at the coach. The top line of Derek Stepan as the pivot between Brad Richards and Chris Kreider made sense. All three defense pairings made sense. But the second, third, and fourth forward lines looked like something out of the Tom Renney line generator.

Among the questions: What purpose does Mats Zuccarello serve on a line with Taylor Pyatt and Brian Boyle? Why is Derek Dorsett on a line with Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard? Is Dominic Moore still on the fourth line with J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast, or are they forming a third line? What order are these lines in? Which line is going to get the shutdown role? Which line can actually provide some non-Richards based offense? Where was the newly recalled Brandon Mashinter?

These are legitimate questions that came up on Twitter (in my @ mentions) and in the comments. To be honest: They are fair questions. They are very un-AV like lines as well. So let’s try to make some sense of it.

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Injuries testing Rangers depth early

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Every team has to deal with injuries over the course of the season, it’s a part of the game. The Rangers are one of those teams dealing with such injuries right now, and it’s testing their depth early in the year. Not only is New York dealing with injuries, they are dealing with injuries to significant players. They are missing three of their top six forwards at the moment, and haven’t dressed a full lineup all season.

Ryan Callahan won’t be back until next month. Carl Hagelin won’t be back until the end of this month. Rick Nash is out for the foreseeable future. Any team that is missing three forwards is going to have difficulties dressing a competent roster. Any team missing three top six forwards is even bigger trouble, and that is exactly where the Rangers are at this moment.

Depth becomes a bigger issue when the rookies who were expected to get injury call ups (Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast) are now on the roster full time, playing bottom six minutes in the NHL instead of top six minutes in the AHL. While the plan may have been to get these kids some NHL ice time later in the season, October NHL time didn’t give them much time for growth in the AHL.

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Richards clicking at LW creates need for third line center

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

When the Rangers opened camp in September, the assumption was that Brad Richards would play either second or third line center and Chris Kreider would be playing first or second line left-wing. It’s amazing how quickly things change. Six games into the season, Richards has solidified himself as the top LW, while Kreider is working on his game in the AHL.

With Richards no longer playing center, the Rangers vaunted depth heading into the season is no more. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard are still the top two guys down the middle, but Brian Boyle –who we believe is best suited as a 4C– is now lining up as the 3c, and Dominic Moore is lining up as the 4C. The best case scenario for the Rangers has Boyle and Moore on the same line, providing excellent defense while chipping in offensively here and there.

Naturally, this creates a hole at 3C. Boyle is a great asset to this club, but he is best served as a shutdown guy taking defensive zone draws.

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Rangers should use current situation to fast track J.T. Miller

Now the Rangers called up Miller he needs to be used properly

Now the Rangers called up Miller he needs to be used properly

While it is anything other than ideal that the Rangers are still without Rick Nash or any semblance of  self-confidence, the promotion of J.T. Miller to the Rangers gives the club a chance to let the kid succeed.

Miller comes to the Rangers in great form (4 goals in 3 games with Hartford), and likely brimming with confidence. The Rangers welcome Miller, desperate for someone to step up at both ends of the rink, and –although currently slated for the 4th line– there is an opportunity for top six minutes for the taking. It is in the Rangers best interests that Miller develops well. Now is the time to give him that chance. If they are not going to leave him to develop with the Wolf Pack, then give him major minutes.

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Brad Richards is off to a promising start

B-Rich has started well

B-Rich has started well

Highlighted by his two goal performance in the impressive win over the Kings, Brad Richards has started the season well; which is a great sign for the Rangers. Having played a lackluster preseason – which came on the heels of his well documented (abysmal) 2012-13 season –  Richards has begun to lay to rest the lingering concerns for this season.

He is skating well, looking to put the puck on net, and is getting separation from defenseman – something he did all too rarely last season. Perhaps most importantly is the lack of blind, drop passes on the blue line which were littered throughout his play last season.

While it’s only two games in to the new season – one of which was the sloppy Coyotes’ loss – the start laid down by Richard’s bodes well for the team. An in-form Richards would be hugely beneficial because, while Derek Stepan was much improved against the Kings (wasn’t everyone?), Stepan still has work to do to get back to his form of a year ago. If Richards can give the Rangers a strong year it’ll give the Rangers excellent depth down the middle.

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Time to end the Pyatt experiment

Taylor Pyatt has not been a successful addition

The Rangers were particularly sloppy against the Coyotes, were outdueled in net and on special teams. But no one will panic after one game that came on the heels of an awkward, disjointed preseason. That said there are a few players who are surely on shaky ground. One particular player who doesn’t figure to be part of the future is Taylor Pyatt.

Taylor Pyatt started his Rangers career in strong fashion and bookended last season with a solid playoffs, but Pyatt could be expendable on a team where cap space is a necessity. He cannot keep up on the ice and is as inconsistent now as the talented winger has ever been.

While Pyatt was not the worst Ranger forward on the ice on Thursday he was simply ineffective. No shots, no particularly strong shifts or physical play, nothing to demand the attention from the coaching staff or demand more ice time moving forward.

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Predicting roster moves when Callahan, Hagelin return

J.T. Miller will need to force his way into a permanent spot in New York (Seth Wenig/AP)

J.T. Miller will need to force his way into a permanent spot in New York (Seth Wenig/AP)

One question that has been brought up a lot recently is who the Rangers will waive or return to Hartford when Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin return to the lineup. Cally is aiming for a Monday return in LA, while Hagelin is currently on LTIR and will miss –at a minimum– the first ten games of the season. The two rookies on the roster, Jesper Fast (RW) and J.T. Miller (LW) appear to be the placeholders for Cally and Hags.

Considering the Captain will only miss one game, it is almost a sure-fire bet that Fast will be returned to Hartford once Cally is good to go. As good as Fast has been in the preseason, big minutes are more important to his development than remaining with the big club. Cally will slide into Fast’s spot in the lineup, maybe causing a bit of a shakeup of the lines on his return. After that, the left wings have another handful of games as an extended tryout to remain with the club when Hagelin returns.

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Expectancy for Rick Nash greater than ever

Rick Nash is facing a huge amount of pressure. Starting Thursday

Rick Nash is facing a huge amount of pressure. Starting Thursday

As the Rangers prepare to open their season on Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes, they will do so missing two of their presumptive top six forwards and with their de facto top line center behind the eight ball thanks to Derek Stepan’s (partial) holdout. Throw in the continued struggles of the likes of Chris Kreider and the less than inspiring preseason of Brad Richards, and the pressure on Rick Nash to lead an offense has never been greater.

Despite being part of a far more talented collective in New York, Nash wouldn’t even have faced this level of expectancy in Columbus, where he was the lone elite talent. In New York this season, the Rangers’ burly power forward is expected to lead a contender’s offense for the first time, and do so in a legitimate big sports market (sorry Ohio).

At the start of last year it was assumed Brad Richards was still a top line center. The excitement of Chris Kreider’s arrival was still very real, and the Rangers of course still had a guy called Marian Gaborik. Fast forward a year and the Rangers begin the season without Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, Richards is a shadow of his former self, and Kreider is in the AHL.

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Toughness and physicality could become a concern for the Rangers

(Source: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America)

(Source: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America)

The Rangers are a very deep team this season, especially at forward. They are in a position where –when fully healthy– they have three scoring lines and a solid defensive fourth line. However there is one glaring weakness (on paper); the apparent lack of physicality and toughness on the roster. Even with a healthy Ryan Callahan, the Rangers are at risk of being surprisingly vanilla, with just three forwards (Callahan, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett) slated to play who regularly throw their body around. Arron Asham is a fourth, but he seems destined for the 13th/14th forward role.

On defense, it doesn’t get much easier. The club doesn’t have a “nasty” defenseman who makes life hard on players who go to the front of the net. Ryan McDonagh is the closest thing they have, but he doesn’t have a history of beating people down in front of the net at the NHL level. Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi led the team in hits for defensemen, and we saw them being more physical in front in the preseason, but they still don’t qualify as that “nasty” player.

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New lines add to roster makeup questions

Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

After the Rangers announced their final cuts yesterday, they practiced and showcased some new lines. These lines are not quite set, as Ryan Callahan is not cleared to play in games (just cleared for contact). Rick Nash, who missed practice, would take Cally’s place on the top line:

Brad Richards-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan
Taylor Pyatt-Brian Boyle-Jesper Fast
Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello
JT Miller-Dominic Moore-Derek Dorsett

The first thing that stands out is that Brad Richards is on the wing. This is honestly a very savvy coaching move. It is clear that Richards is not the Richards of old, but can be a very effective offensive player. By placing him on the wing, Alain Vigneault is limiting his defensive responsibilities and allowing Richards to play more to his strengths. It’s a move that may seem small, but may have a big impact.

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