Mid-Season Report Card: The Bottom Six

jesper fast

(Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

One of the bigger tasks on GM Jeff Gorton’s plate this summer was revamping the bottom six. The Rangers had just met a quick defeat at the hands of eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins and throughout the series (and much of the regular season, depending on the opponent) was that the Rangers depth players simply couldn’t match up against those of elite teams. I won’t beat a dead horse too much, but I will note that Tanner Glass saw significant minutes in the playoffs last year. Enough said.

Gorton rose to the occasion and made savvy acquisitions in the offseason, most notably Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, and later picked up Matt Puempel on waivers from Ottawa. While Grabner has obviously been the standout amongst this group the three of them, and call-up Marek Hrivik, have given the bottom six a whole new look. The Rangers’s bottom two lines are now primarily identifiable by their speed and puck handling ability, as opposed to their propensity to bleed shot attempts.

Part of the improvement to the bottom six has less to do with who Gorton acquired in the offseason for the third and fourth lines and more to do with the team’s revamped top six. Having Pavel Buchnevich, Mika Zibanejad, and Jimmy Vesey means that the Rangers no longer consider Jesper Fast in the top six, and Oscar Lindberg can now get consistent minutes in a role that best suits him, that of fourth line center.

It’s also worth noting that thanks to the Rangers’s abundance of skilled forwards they have the luxury of mixing and matching lines, at times playing Vesey and Buchnevich on the third and fourth lines. When everyone’s healthy, the forward depth is pretty serious, and helps the Rangers match up well against pretty much any opponent.

Of course the Rangers haven’t been entirely healthy this year, so we’ve had to make do with some less than ideal players in the bottom six. Nicklas Jensen hasn’t exactly lit it up on the fourth line, and Hrivik, although he plays a solid game, is certainly a downgrade at fourth line center from Lindberg and is much more effective on the wing. Pirri has been something of a disappointment, with his impressive shot proving absent of late and his defensive game less than stellar.

The question of evaluating the Rangers’s bottom six really turns on what we consider their bottom six, and what the injury situation is. If we’re talking early in the season and referring to players like Buch, Vesey, Hayes, or Grabner, then the bottom six has been stellar, and almost indistinguishable from the top six at times. Presently, with the injury situation being what it is, the Rangers bottom six has been a little bit less impressive, although serviceable.

With a forward lineup as amorphous as the Rangers’s and a coach who likes to roll four lines like AV, the simple distinctions between lines become blurred. Insofar as we can speak of a “bottom six” within this lineup they’ve been anywhere from great to mediocre, and typically the bottom two lines rise and fall with the rest of the team as far as controlling the puck and momentum of the game. Capable of providing energy and even scoring at times, yet largely forgettable at others, I’d say this bottom six ultimately gets a B+.