It hasn’t been easy.
Poor planning down the middle during the summer forced first Martin St. Louis and now Kevin Hayes into unnatural positions, but both players have done well learning on the fly. The center problem has been felt most at the faceoff dots, but that’s never been Stepan’s hallmark anyway. And though Stepan’s myriad of contributions obviously can’t be replaced, the absence of the No. 1 center has done nothing to affect the team’s primary scorers on the wing. Rick Nash is off to an unreal start, and rotating top-liners St. Louis and Chris Kreider have found the scoresheet early and often even without No. 21. Stepan has been missed more in the defensive end, but the entire team has been awful in its own zone thus far, so the subs would be hard to fault for that.
On the wings, both Jesper Fast and Anthony Duclair looked solid for the first few games, but the Rangers are riding a three-game winning streak since coach Alain Vigneault opted to go with veterans Ryan Malone and Chris Mueller. Both players could be re-inserted at any point, as could J.T. Miller.
Defensively, Matt Hunwick has settled in nicely on the bottom pairing while virtually none of the other five regular blueliners is playing particularly well. Again, defense has been a team-wide issue, but Hunwick has more than held his own.
The Blueshirts have even more options in Hartford that could become useful at some point this season. Both Dylan McIlrath and Connor Allen were called upon last year and could be inserted into the lineup should Hunwick slip, or another injury occurs. And up front, Oscar Lindberg, Ryan Bourque, Ryan Haggerty and Danny Kristo could be recalled in the future.
It’s unfortunate that coach Alain Vigneault’s hand was forced in the early going, but in the long run, it could turn out to be a huge positive that New York’s depth was put to the test before the meat of the season. The Blueshirts clearly aren’t going to be as lucky fending off the injury bug this year as they were last season, so figuring out who is capable now will only help when it counts.