Youth must take center stage for the end of the season

Rangers lines shake up: The kids have been reunited

The New York Rangers season is unfortunately winding down with just 8 games left in the regular season. For the past few weeks we were given a little ray of hope that this team might make the playoffs. But the huge losses against the Islanders and Flyers looks to have shut that door. This year was never about making the playoffs, it would’ve been nice, but rather this was another year of development. Or it was mainly supposed to be. With 8 games left and the playoffs nothing but a pipe dream at this point, David Quinn and Rangers upper management need to prioritize the youth, give them big minutes and develop for next season.

Many have had their issues with Quinn this season and rightfully so. He has made questionable lineup choices time and time again and driven us all into a frenzy at least once a week.

  • Why does Brett Howden get unlimited kicks at the can?
  • Why has Alexis Lafreniere been held off the power play?
  • What about demoting Kaapo Kakko after games where he dominated?
  • Why does Chris Kreider get a permanent first line spot when he goes invisible for weeks, sometimes a full month, at a time?
  • With Tarmo Reunanen playing well down in Hartford, why hasn’t he gotten another shot?
  • Does he even remember who Julien Gauthier is?
  • Remember when Vitali Kravtsov wasn’t a “fourth line player?

These are all valid questions that have come up all season long. Quinn has done a poor job of providing answers to reporters. Remember though –this is something a lot of fans leave out of their vitriol– is that upper management could’ve stepped in. Development isn’t wholly on the coaching staff. But no matter what, it’s time to get the kids in prime roles in the lineup and let them play through any mistakes without fear of demotion or benching.

Alexis Lafreniere

First off, Alexis Lafreniere should be on the first line. This is a no-brainer, and we saw it last night. Now who moves off each to make room? For the first line that’s an easy one. Chris Kreider was already swapped. He hasn’t been himself since those two hat trick games which seems like an eternity ago.

Lafreniere has not taken his foot off the gas all season and the kid, despite being ping pong balled around the lineup, still has eight goals and 14 points. He showed a lot of promise when he was moved up the lineup earlier this year and worked well. It worked well last night too.

Kaapo Kakko

Lafreniere’s development is huge but so is Kaapo Kakko’s. Kakko on PP1 is only one of the changes I would make. I would almost certainly put him back with Strome and Panarin at even strength. Kakko, the second overall pick in 2019, has grown leaps and bounds since last season. He was a defensive black hole last year but this season he has improved immensely and seems to be trending towards being a Mark Stone-lite type player.

The kid line has had flashes. But having the kids spread around the lineup a bit could do wonders for them. Working with Strome and Panarin would give Kakko a chance to have a little more space, as defenses will be focused on Panarin and Strome, and could open up his creativity.

Colin Blackwell has been a great feel good story this year but it’s time for him to move down the lineup. It makes no sense to keep a placeholder player like him next to Strome and Panarin when Kakko needs the minutes to develop. 

Vitali Kravtsov

Vitali Kravtsov has benefited immensely from his extra time in the KHL and the early returns on him are extremely promising. The final change I would implement in the top six for these last games is moving Buchnevich down and moving Kravtsov up.

This is not by any means a knock on Buchnevich. He has been one of the best Rangers forwards this year and has turned himself into a two-way force on the ice. His penalty kill work has been spectacular and his shot took a step forward this year. This is more about getting Kravtsov time with a bonafide center in Zibanejad and having some nice skill players to work with. Not to knock Brett Howden and Kevin Rooney, but they aren’t Alexis Lafreniere and Mika Zibanejad. Not by a long shot.

With the top six set, the new third line would consist of Kreider, Filip Chytil, and Pavel Buchnevich. This could be really interesting to see because Chytil is still being viewed as a center by the organization. Giving him solid veterans to work with these last games could help calm him down. Plus the KCB line has worked in the past. This is a no-brainer and now the top nine features rookies all in prominent positions to succeed.

Even Strength Lines

Finishing up the even strength lines, Brett Howden should not see NHL ice again this season. That ship has sailed. Julien Gauthier should get these minutes so the organization can see what they actually have in him. Let him work down in the lineup with Rooney and Blackwell and just let him play his game.

Blackwell has shown he can work with a skill player like Gauthier. Rooney just needs to be a game manager. It’s a win-win. So with that, the totally revamped New York Rangers forward group:

Alexis Lafreniere – Mika Zibanejad – Vitali Kravtsov
Artemi Panarin – Ryan Strome – Kaapo Kakko
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Colin Blackwell – Kevin Rooney – Julien Gauthier

This group has balance, and sticks to the theme of prioritizing Rangers youth to close out the season.

PP1

Shifting to te powerplay, not only should he be on the first line, but Lafreniere should be on the first power-play unit as well. Having every shot on the unit be a right handed shot has always been a little puzzling to me. Having at least one left handed shot would allow the unit to come up with new plays and another one-timer option. I would move Kreider off the first powerplay unit, shift Zibanejad to the left wall and put Lafreniere on the right wall.

Ideally the first powerplay is Panarin-Zibanejad-Lafreniere-Kakko-Fox.

Not only does Lafreniere move onto PP1 but so does Kaapo Kakko. Moving Ryan Strome off helps get two of the Rangers prize young players time with Panarin, Fox, and Zibanejad, arguably the three most talented players on the team. This unit has a lefty/righty balance, opening up quick plays and one-timers. Even if it doesn’t work, it could be a fun experiment for the last eight games.

PP2

As mentioned above, Strome and Kreider move to PP2 for Kakko and Lafreniere. This makes PP2 more balanced with different options and a more lethal look. PP2 needs to have a healthy mix of veterans and young players to succeed. Remember, it’s not so much a demotion, but more so he can help some of the young forwards get going.

Kravtsov, Chytil and a mix of K’Andre Miller and Zac Jones should be the remaining parts of PP2. Miller has been steady all year for the Rangers, and with Jones coming off a national championship win with UMass, the Rangers should give him a big look these last ten games to show his stuff.

This revamped PP2 would now be Kreider-Strome-Kravtsov-Miller-Jones. Jacob Trouba would rotate in with Miller and Jones here.

Both powerplay units have a mix of rookies and veterans, giving the kids a chance to succeed. That is the key theme for prioritizing youth, and the Rangers would get it here.

Defense Pairs

Finally let’s move to the defense. Quinn has actually done a good job with his defense corps this year, as he’s given his rookies prominent roles all year. He’s allowed Adam Fox to push himself to Norris contention in just his second year in the league. K’Andre Miller has played top-four minutes all year and even though he has had his struggles, has been steady and trusted by Quinn to make the right plays. It’s shocking just how different he has handled the defense from the forwards.

The problem is the third pair and how much of a sinkhole defensively it has been all year. Libor Hajek should probably be moved down to the AHL. He simply has not been good all season. Prioritizing youth is important for the Rangers, but it’s also about prioritizing the right youth.

Obviously since I have him on PP2, Zac Jones should stick in the lineup when Trouba is healthy. He deserves every opportunity they can afford him. Otherwise why sign him this early?

Does Brenden Smith stay in the lineup? It’s tough because he’s been a great character guy, but his on-ice play just hasn’t been there. Should the Rangers consider moving Tarmo Renunanen up to see what he’s got? In his lone appearance this season he had an assist and looked comfortable in the lineup. With this revamp, here is your New York Rangers defense for the end of the year:

Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox
K’Andre Miller – Jacob Trouba
Tarmo Reunanen – Zac Jones

Prioritizing Youth

With all of these lineup changes, the Rangers give their young players bigger roles to close out the season. By telling them to go out and just play, it takes the pressure off them and gives them stress free hockey without fear of being benched. Removing the fear matters.

The playoffs would have been nice but it was never about this year. For the Rangers, the end of 2021 should be all about prioritizing youth and getting them ready for 2021-2022. Hopefully they embrace the youth rather than continue an asinine playoff chance.