All season long, the Rangers have had some serious issues with the fourth line. It’s not really a surprise, since the Rangers have used nine different players on that line already. Nine. Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, Ryan Malone, Chris Mueller, Lee Stempniak, Kevin Hayes, Anthony Duclair. Suffice it to say: That’s a lot of forwards used on a line that was a huge strength for the club last year.
Out of those nine, four are rookies, three are in the AHL, two are retreads that probably shouldn’t be on an NHL roster, one’s a possession anchor that shouldn’t be on a roster, and two more shouldn’t be on a fourth line (top-nine only). It’s a mess, but it’s a fixable mess. In fact, it’s easily fixable.
Step One: Enough with the retreads.
Mueller had a nice few games, and is a decent option as a short-term fill-in. That I’m fine with. But enough with Malone. He’s too slow to play the type of game the Rangers want to play, and he’s not strong enough defensively to help out in a primarily defensive role.
Step Two: Stop putting Duclair and Hayes on the fourth line.
If they can’t cut it in the top-nine, send Hayes to Hartford and Duclair to the Q. Neither benefit from 75% defensive zone starts. Hayes certainly doesn’t benefit because he can’t win a faceoff. That’s not to say they wouldn’t be successful in that role (Hayes is surprisingly solid from a positioning standpoint in the DZ), it’s that it doesn’t put them in the best position to succeed.
Step Three: Moore is your best center option.
Actually, Moore is your only center option. Moving on. Don’t think so? Repeat Step One.
Step Four: Trust the rookie.
No, not Duclair or Hayes. Trust Fast. He’s better than any RW option aside from Stempniak, who may wind up on the third line anyway. Fast was absolutely killed with DZ starts in his three games in New York, and while his possession numbers weren’t stellar, they are an insane improvement over Tanner Glass. Even if it’s just that one replacement, it’s a significant upgrade. Plus, Fast understands defensive assignments as a wing (strong side point/weak side pass, depending on puck location) and kills penalties.
Step Five: Move the other rookie to wing.
J.T. Miller is going to be fine. He’s not going to be a flashy scoring forward, but he’s going to work and he’s going to use his speed to create. That said, he may be best suited as a winger going forward. The wings in Alain Vigneault’s system have significantly less responsibilities than the center. Sometimes a kid is in his own head too much. Let him simplify the game. If you’re worried about faceoffs, let him take the draw then move to wing responsibilities. It’s been done before (see: Dubinsky, Brandon).
Step Six: Enough with the anchor.
Tanner Glass isn’t a good forward. He drifts too low on the penalty kill, he’s often caught out of position (i.e.: Not covering the weak side pass to the point) at evens, he rarely picks up the third or fourth man in on the rush, he gravitates towards the puck instead of his DZ assignment. I get that he’s a good skater, and I get that he is “versatile” and can “play with an edge.” That said, there are significantly better options.
The ideal scenario:
Yes, Miller is a bit of a work in progress in the DZ, but Moore and Fast/Stempniak can easily cover for him. All three have enough offensive instincts to transition when need be. Add in that Miller would be on the wing, thus –generally– higher in the zone, makes the transition a little easier. Miller can also move the possession arrow in the Rangers’ favor, something that is often overlooked.
A lot of this is dependent upon Duclair and Hayes, and where they slot in. If they can work through their respective issues at the NHL level, they can hold down third line roles. If not, then it throws this ideal scenario out the window.
The likely scenario:
Like it or not, Glass is here to stay, and Moore is probably going to have to drag that anchor around the ice with him at all times. It is what it is. The RW here stays the same, but is dependent on Hayes/Duclair. Naturally, we could (likely) see Stempniak on the third line and Fast on the fourth line, which I’m fine with.
Perhaps this is a post saying that Jesper Fast should be back with the club. I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. He’s a better 4RW option than Malone, and is more suited for massive DZ starts than Duclair or Hayes. Usually these problems solve themselves over the course of the season though. It happened last year.