One of the major complaints some fans have about the Rangers is that they “lack a number one center.” Pat debunked that yesterday, citing that the Rangers, in fact, have a pair of top line centers in Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard. The pair of them give the Rangers great flexibility and matchup advantages, as no team can focus on just one of them.
That extends down the lineup, as the Rangers are able to keep Kevin Hayes sheltered as the third line center. On most teams, Hayes would be a second line center based on his even strength production (remember that he gets no powerplay time on a team this deep, which affects his overall numbers). Keeping him on the third line presents the opportunity for mismatches, as few teams have the depth to handle three top-six centers.
That leaves Eric Staal, who obviously is a center, as a major wild card for this team. He seems to fit in better on the wing, which comes with less defensive responsibility and makes Alain Vigneault’s systems a little easier to learn. Fully capable of taking faceoffs if playing with Hayes, Staal gives the Rangers that added boost in the circle while keeping him and Hayes at positions they are more comfortable in.
In the top-nine, the Rangers have four players who can serve as top-six centers. Not many playoff teams can boast that kind of depth, and it gives the Rangers a tremendous matchup advantage come playoff time. Against likely first round opponent Pittsburgh, for example, they have just Crosby and Malkin as their top-six centers. Matt Cullen is more of a third line center playing up a role in Malkin’s absence. Meanwhile, the Rangers can put a pair of top-six centers on their third line.
Only Washington, with Backstrom-Johansson-Burakovsky can boast this kind of center depth among Eastern Conference playoff teams. Center depth is perhaps the biggest non-Lundqvist strength for this Rangers team headed into the playoffs. Considering the state of the blue line, they will need to take advantage of that depth to make a run. But it’s because of that depth –and Lundqvist– that the Rangers can be capable of making a run.