The Rangers will continue their search for a top-six RW to play with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider this summer. It’s been their mission since the ill-advised Pavel Buchnevich trade, trying what feels like dozens of options to no avail. That search for a RW will come with significant cost, and perhaps the best idea is to split Zibanejad and Kreider heading into next season.

Was Zibanejad’s year a blip?

The big question, and what’s fueling the desire to split Zibanejad and Kreider, was the former’s pretty rough season. Zibanejad had his lowest offensive numbers since the 2017-2018 season, not counting the Covid shortened 2020-2021 season. His 26-46-72 line looks good, but it was just 12-23-35 at even strength. That’s simply not good enough for a top line center.

Zibanejad’s 5v5 metrics weren’t horrendous, but they weren’t necessarily good either. Kreider was actually a decent complement, as he drove the offensive play that Zibanejad couldn’t, while Zibanejad actually ate up some solid defensive minutes.

What’s important to note is once Filip Chytil went down with his concussion, the Rangers had their bottom six thrown into a blender that wouldn’t establish roles until after the deadline. This forced ZIbanejad to take the bulk of the tough assignments, something that would normally be reserved for a shutdown line. While that would have some impact, it wouldn’t explain everything.

It also doesn’t help that Zibanejad isn’t an offensive play driver. In all fairness, he never was. And that’s been fine, but now it’s starting to become an issue as the Rangers 5v5 play was exploited by Florida.

The case to split Zibanejad and Kreider

It seems that we all know the Rangers can’t simply just run it back next year. This core as currently constructed seems to have the Conference Final as its ceiling. A whole blow up isn’t needed, but something needs to be done. It’s unlikely major changes come in the form of a huge trade, so perhaps running it back can be avoided if they split Zibanejad and Kreider up?

The bromance aside, we know what this duo can and has done. But for the sake of better lineup balance and to hopefully get to more established roles in the bottom six, the duo may need to be split up.

Assuming he’s healthy, Filip Chytil and Chris Kreider would make an excellent starting-two on a third line that may not need such a huge play driver at RW to turn them into a dynamic scoring line that is no slouch defensively. Perhaps Brennan Othmann or Brett Berard are fits, with my personal opinion Berard is a better fit and a bit more NHL ready.

Aside: Berard had far better 5v5 numbers than Othmann, who was bolstered by powerplay production. Berard is also a pest and a pain to play against, perhaps making him the better option in this specific scenario. As always, happy to be wrong. Yes, I’m aware both are listed as LWs, not RWs.

It’s also far easier to find a RW to complement two play driving top-six forwards in Kreider and Chytil than it is to find a play driving RW that would need to carry the load with Kreider and Zibanejad. Role does matter if we theoretically split Zibanejad and Kreider.

This would leave Zibanejad to center a third line in a hybrid shutdown/scoring role with Will Cuylle as one of his wingers. That would leave the fourth line as the prototypical shutdown line.

The case against

It’s easy to find a case to split Zibanejad and Kreider. It’s also easy to find a case against. We know what this duo can do, and since Buchnevich they haven’t had a steady RW that fits their need. What made Buchnevich work was his strengths–quietly doing little things and creating space for both Kreider and Zibanejad–complemented Kreider’s and Zibanejad’s weaknesses. The Rangers simply haven’t found someone who has been able to do this at 5v5.

There’s a strong case to keep them together and simply “find the right RW.” That, of course, is easier said than done. We don’t know which RWs are available via trade. Outside of Sam Reinhart and Jake Guentzel, who will be outrageously expensive, the RWs available via free agency come with risks. Names like Jonathan Marchesseault and Tyler Bertuzzi will become front and center over the next month.

Instead of entering a whole world of unknown, why not simply try to find the right RW? That seems to be the biggest obstacle, and in keeping them together, the Rangers reduce the risk of a rookie like Berard or Othmann being thrust into top-six minutes unexpectedly.

Sometimes, less is more. The Rangers can keep it simple and get the right player instead of trying to piece it together with hopes of kids and/or bargain RW free agents catching lightning in a bottle.

Also, if the Rangers split Zibanejad and Kreider, then we better hope Chytil is fully recovered and ready for top-six assignments and workload. That is a whole other discussion where we simply don’t know the answer, and won’t until the season starts. It’s not an enviable position for Chris Drury or Peter Laviolette, as the decision to split Zibanejad and Kreider will come down to them.

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