With the news that Vinny Prospal may be out long term, the Rangers have shifted their attention to finding a first line center for Marian Gaborik and Alex Frolov. Considering the line combinations from practice this morning, in which Erik Christensen was centering Gaborik and Frolov, it appears the coaching staff is comfortable with Christensen centering the top line, at least in the short term. Many fans, on the other hand, believe that this is the best move the Rangers can make going forward.
Erik Christensen is a journeyman center, who couldn’t crack the Anaheim Ducks roster. He was a waiver wire pickup, and a solid one at that. He has definitely earned that two year deal the Rangers gave him last summer. That said, Erik Christensen is simply not a first line center, and a team that counts on him to be a first line center will have many problems throughout the year. Of course the Rangers don’t have many options for top line center at the moment. Prospal and Chris Drury are hurt. Todd White hasn’t impressed, neither has Tim Kennedy (who shouldn’t even sniff the top six). Artem Anisimov has clicked so well with Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, that it does more harm than good to move either Anisimov or Dubinsky off the line. Derek Stepan seems like the logical choice, but he has clicked with Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko, so the same situation applies. Naturally, Brian Boyle isn’t exactly a fit for the top line.
After eliminating Drury, Prospal, Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Stepan, all the Rangers are left with is Christensen. Sure, he has skill, but he rarely shows it. He made a nice pass in the preseason against the Red Wings, and schooled Martin Brodeur last year. It looks like those two plays really stand out in the majority of fans’ minds, because there seems to be a “common consensus” that he “belongs” on the top line. But yet, in five games this preseason, Christensen has been inconsistent, invisible, and only put up two points in five games. The majority of his time was spent on the top line during the preseason as well.
It looks like the words “by default” are the two greatest words to Christensen’s ears at the moment. He certainly has not played well this preseason, and has only been placed on the top line because it appears that the coaching staff doesn’t want to break up two other lines that have been clicking. Either way you look at it, someone is going to have to sit when Drury comes back (assuming White and Kennedy don’t crack the starting roster), and it looks like Christensen is the odd man out.
Can the Rangers do worse than Erik Christensen for top line duties? Of course. But then again, they can do a lot better too. The fact remains that he was waived by three separate teams. He has some skill, but doesn’t play consistently enough to warrant a top spot. He doesn’t play enough defense to place him on a third or fourth line, and he doesn’t play enough offense to play him in the top six. At the moment, Christensen appears to be a fringe player. He was outplayed by many in preseason, and had there not been injuries, would have lost top line duties. He can always find his game, if it can be found. For now, he is the best/only option for top line center, but for how long remains to be seen.
Update 4:50pm: After the jump, I added a rebuttal from BSB frequenter Jordan. It’s a good counter argument, and it’s good to hear both sides of the story.
Basically, from what I read, it’s that EC doesn’t have a place on this team, in your opinion. We can both agree he isn’t a top line center. You also say he shouldn’t be a top 6 guy. Then you say he doesn’t play enough defense to be a bottom 6 guy. So pretty much, he’s just a scratch waiting to happen.
Taking a look at EC’s GVT numbers, the best statistic we have to aggregate a player’s value, EC has been consistent throughout his career. His career numbers are 11.4 GGVT, 3.9 DGVT, 5.5 SGVT for an overall 20.8 GVT in 5 seasons.
More recently, EC’s value was 5.2 GVT through only 49 games with the NYR.
What does all this tell us? Nothing extraordinary, just that EC has tangible value. Maybe he works well with this team (player chemistry, Tort’s system, etc), hence his high GVT numbers last year. That’s pure speculation, but it could be for real. If nothing else, EC is a league average defender and better than league average offense wise. He’s a consistently average to above average player. That has value on this team and pretty much any other in the NHL. Top line, no, but the rest of the lines? Sure, why not?
I would challenge anyone who disagrees to assess their own value of Artem Anisimov, who is the player who is getting by on a few flashes of brilliance rather than a consistent showing at center. I acknowledge and fully understand he has only played 1 year and is still very young, but that’s the only sample we have to work with. I’m not advocating he shouldn’t be on this team, just that he has performed more in line with characteristics explained in this post. If anything, Artem’s small sample size data suggests he’s a better defender and should be on a lower line.