The Rangers have had an interesting week. For only two games played thus far, there’s been a ton of chatter about how this team really can be better, and it shouldn’t take much maneuvering. As per usual, I have some thoughts.
1. The first item is that the Rangers and Oilers were apparently close on a Jesse Puljujarvi/Lias Andersson swap. Puljujarvi likely would have signed with the Rangers and played this year. I’m not usually a big fan of giving up on someone like Lias, but in a Puljujarvi swap I’d do it. Edmonton wanted more than just Lias though, and rightfully so. Straight up value is tilted towards Puljujarvi, who is more offensively gifted and just wasn’t used properly in Edmonton. We don’t know what the organization’s concerns with Lias are, but it’s clear they are ready to cut bait.
2. The Rangers are actually pretty thin at wing, especially if you consider the pending departure of Chris Kreider. They have Artemi Panarin, Pavel Buchnevich, and Kaapo Kakko. That’s really it. Vitali Kravtsov is coming over, but Puljujarvi would help fill out that top nine. The emergence of Brendan Lemieux as a viable top-nine winger would give the Blueshirts the top-nine depth they need to complement Mika Zibanejad and Filip Chytil as their eventual 1-2 punch down the middle.
3. The only concern I have with the organization’s willingness to move on from Lias is that it means they either buy in on Brett Howden being a top-nine center (he isn’t yet) or are enamoured by Ryan Strome’s first 90 games with the Rangers (24-33-57) despite his massive shooting percentage that is in the middle of a regression. He’s had great numbers and looks good with Panarin, plus there’s evidence that shows this year is much improved as long as he’s with Panarin.
4. Speaking of Howden, who unsurprisingly looks worse when on a fourth line with a defenseman and Micheal Haley, he’s not the only struggling rookie who needs to have his deployment revisited. Libor Hajek has been just as bad, and for some reason this coaching staff continues to trot him out there in a top-four role. The same way Chytil may have needed a confidence boost in Hartford applies to both Howden and Hajek. They were the key pieces of the Ryan McDonagh trade, and long-term value is more importance than short-term “we get them for our best player and now need to play them.”
5. Which brings me to improving this team without making big moves. This is all on the coaching staff at this point, since there’s some low-hanging fruit here. The first and most obvious is to make a fourth line that matters. If you want Howden there, so be it. Maybe put him on the wing with Boo Nieves and Greg McKegg? It won’t light up offensively, but at least it’s better than two minutes a night. It’s a line that can avoid the 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 rotation that David Quinn has been using. That saves legs for stretches like this.
6. Another easy move: Stop galaxy braining Brendan Smith as a forward. The minute Hajek went down, he should have been moved back to where he belongs. He’s the second (or third, depending on how you view Ryan Lindgren) best left-handed defenseman on the roster right now. With a fourth line established, you can improve the blue line markedly with just sliding Smith in for Hajek (sending Hajek down temporarily) and keeping Staal as the 7D. It’s time to move on from Staal and, at the very least, build up some trade value for Smith for when the Rangers deal him to Ottawa after his July 1, 2020 bonus is paid (Sens get a $4.35 million cap hit for $2.35 million in actual dollars – we all know that’s happening).
7. That’s it. Those are the moves. So simple. No galaxy braining required.