One theme of the Rangers rebuild has been getting the prospects time with the top-nine forwards. It’s a pretty fair expectation, especially with the prospects that are/should be here for a while. Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and Brendan Lemieux (yes, Brendan Lemieux) should be getting that top-nine time. They are going to be here for a while, and they need to be put in spots to succeed. But that’s only three kids and 75% of the lineup.
As of today, the fourth line has consisted of some combination of a journeyman fighter, a pair of 4A guys, and a defenseman on the wings with one of two young prospects as the center. That is wholly unfair to both Lias Andersson –who is tearing up the AHL at the moment– and Brett Howden. They aren’t being put in a position to succeed, and haven’t even been given the ice time (with Howden’s ice time issue being more recent) to even show they should be in the NHL.
Now there are a couple things to consider here, as not everything is black and white. Lias had a great preseason, much better than both Howden and Chytil, and was saddled on the fourth line from the get-go. No matter what you think of the former 7th overall pick, that’s just unfair and doesn’t send the right message. But if 4C is where you see Lias, then it is the obligation of the coaching staff to give him linemates to best get the most out of him. If Lias’ issue is pace, then perhaps playing him more with some offensively driven players would help him learn that? He’s lighting up the AHL while playing with much more offensively talented players, so perhaps that was the plan all along.
As for Howden, we can argue til the cows come home about if he should get a stint in the AHL. But playing him five minutes a night with Micheal Haley, Brendan Smith, or Greg McKegg isn’t going to help his growth and development. Howden’s issue is on the other end of the spectrum from Lias’, as he needs to work on his defensive side of the game.
Perhaps this is all in the plan, where the Rangers rotate their “big three” centers through the AHL to get big minutes and confidence before re-inserting them into the lineup. They are one-for-one with Chytil, and Lias looks to be improving right now, trade rumors aside. With that improvement, and the willingness to move Ryan Strome to wing, perhaps there’s a 3C role up for grabs at some point. But that doesn’t solve the immediate issue of needing a fourth line that actually plays and produces.
David Quinn appears to be stuck in an old adage that his line rotation needs to be 1-2-3-1-2-3-4. The best teams, the ones that are competing for a Stanley Cup, run all four lines equally at even strength. Special teams comes in enough to ensure your top guys get more ice time, especially on the power play. The ice time will work out.
The fourth line is no longer a throwaway line to eat ice time. It’s time for Jeff Gorton and David Quinn to find a fourth line that is worthy of a steady rotation at even strength. It gets the top guys more rest, which we’ve seen they desperately need, plus it presents an opportunity for rookies to get sheltered NHL time at more than just five minutes a game. This is the critical next step.