The Caps are making most of the headlines (and justifiably so) while the Bruins, Lightning and the Islanders are all streaking at the right time of the season but, despite their inadequacies on the blueline and on special teams, there is no team in the East that the Rangers should fear as playoff season approaches – thanks to their depth at center.
The team’s center ‘situation’ however figures to change significantly over the short term almost regardless of how successful this year’s edition end up being. Against the Kings two summers ago, the Rangers were dominated at center and that difference up the middle left an undeniable imprint on the organisation and the acquisition of Eric Staal will have certainly been influenced by the organisation’s desire to control center ice, as well as find the ideal running mate for the team’s one elite forward, Rick Nash.
With that said, the Rangers’ situation at center promises to get serious scrutiny over the summer. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard (barring abysmal – but unlikely – finishes to their respective seasons) are locked in for the immediate future but with JT Miller, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, Dominic Moore and Staal on the roster, the Rangers have seven players who can play center on the current roster alone.
Varying contractual situations (four of the seven named players have expiring contracts) will obviously influence how the Rangers take to the ice next season but the Rangers will likely be able to keep whoever they feel offer the best chance of continued success.
Eventually the Rangers will need to begin a phase of gradual transition and make changes to the roster as they address the long term future of the organisation. The Rangers clearly need to make changes to the defense and their bottom six forwards – these are surely the greatest needs on the squad long term. Dealing from a position of strength (the center position) will be the Rangers best hope of addressing other needs as there won’t be buckets of cash to spend.
The Rangers have big decisions to make on the likes of Hayes and Miller; what are their best positions and are their long term futures even with the organisation? The team will need to decide if Lindberg is best served as a trade chip and they’ll need to decide whether Moore and Eric Staal can provide value in the short term (value being oh-so critical in deciding a player’s future in the current NHL landscape) but the team have the players at their disposal which is always better than having to go out and find them in the first place. It’s always best to trade away rather than needing to chase talent.
Can the Rangers realistically keep Eric Staal and Keith Yandle while icing a team with sufficient depth? The next few months will tell us if the team even want to keep both elite talents in the fold but the Rangers best chances of re-building on the fly lie with the talent they have at center. Don’t spend the next few months getting too attached to Lindberg, Hayes and co. If the Rangers are going to prolong this era of contention, chances are the best returns they’ll receive will come from some of their center talent. The remainder of this season will tell us who are the most ‘expendable commodities’ amongst the Rangers’ stable of centers. It’s not just Eric Staal that’s playing for his immediate future. Let the auditions begin.