With August drawing to a close, hockey is almost upon us. It’s time to pack up your swim trunks and whip out your hockey sweaters, because in just a few short weeks the New York Rangers and the other 29 NHL clubs will officially open their doors for training camp.
In anticipation for the start of training camp, it’s time to start speculating. The Rangers are a team that hasn't seen much turnover, but the introduction of a new head coach means things will most certainly be different. We’ll just have to wait and see how drastic the changes will be.
Since waiting is no fun, we’ll take the initiative and predict what the Rangers’ forward lines will be to open the season and then break them down and identify the biggest question mark on each.
Here are the speculative lines:
Carl Hagelin – Derek Stepan – Rick Nash
Mats Zuccarello – Derick Brassard – Ryan Callahan
Chris Kreider – Brad Richards – Benoit Pouliot
Brian Boyle – Dominic Moore – Derek Dorsett/Taylor Pyatt
You’ll notice players like Arron Asham and Darroll Powe are not included because they were waived earlier in the summer. That doesn’t mean they won’t be a part of the opening night squad, but it certainly doesn’t help their cause. Also, J.T. Miller has been left off because nobody really knows what incoming coach Alain Vigneault has planned for the youngster.
Read on after the jump for an in-depth look at these speculative forward groups.
Anyone who followed the team last season knows that this line was by far the most effective the Rangers used all season long. Derek Stepan has become one of the best two-way centers in the league and his playmaking ability created both time and space for the overly talented sniper Rick Nash. Carl Hagelin’s board play and willingness to dig the puck out of the corners rounded out the line quite nicely.
Unfortunately, the group was disassembled by former coach John Tortorella, because, well, I don’t know. Torts is notorious for his erratic line mixing, and unfortunately this trio couldn’t escape his wrath.
But it’s my belief they should be reunited. Teams like the Rangers—who aren’t the most talented in the league—need a line that can consistently provide offense. This line proved they could last season, and they should be reassembled.
This line, though, like any other, has its question marks. For them, it’s whether or not Hagelin can play first-line minutes consistently. In reality, Hags is a third-line player. On some teams he could see second-line minutes, but his ability is that of a third-liner. The Rangers have used him on the first line in the past because he’s gelled well with certain players, like Nash and Stepan.
But how long could he last riding shotgun with two players who are vastly more talented than he is? Does it even matter if he’s not as talented? He’s not really there to score 30 goals, but instead to do the dirty work for more-skilled players.
The truth would come in time, but there’s no doubt he’s the weakest link on a very talented line. Whether or not he can keep up over the course of a 82-game season is yet to be seen.
The Rangers’ second line has a similar make-up to that of the team’s first line. You’ve got two pure-skill guys in Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, and then you add a third component—Ryan Callahan—to do the dirty work. Except in this instance, Callahan is a significantly greater offensive force than Carl Hagelin.
With so many quality blue collar forwards, the Rangers are afforded the privilege of mixing grit and skill on their top two lines. This allows them to more easily match up with just about any team in the league. And when you pair the ability of this line with the determined attitude of Callahan and Brassard, you’re going to come out on top more times than not.
But the question mark with this trio is Zuccarello. When he arrived in New York in 2010, he had just come off a banner season in Sweden playing for MODO Hockey. After being voted league MVP, Zuccarello set his sights on the NHL.
After a tumultuous three seasons that saw him play more games in Hartford than New York, Zuccarello signed a one-way deal with the Rangers for the 2013-14 season. So, for the first time since coming over the pond, Zucc will get a shot at a full 82-game season.
So the question is, can he handle the rigors? We know he’s got great talent, despite his 5’7” frame. And we’ve seen him produce, but can he do it for a full season? This is not just the biggest question for this line, but the biggest question of Zucc’s career. If he can’t handle it this season, you may never see him in the NHL again.
The ball is in Zuccarello’s court now. Will he throw up a brick?
The downfall of Brad Richards has landed him on the third line, which is a much better place to be than the pressbox. Richie would know, he spent the Rangers’ final two playoff games there.
But there’s no other way to look at it; Richards, right now, is the third best center on this Rangers team. If he wants to play a more prominent role on the team, he’s going to have to prove he’s still got it.
And he’ll be given the opportunity to do so. Playing with two big, talented and young forwards in Chris Kreider and Benoit Pouliot could be exactly what Richards needs to energize himself. He had some of his best seasons playing in Dallas with youngsters like Loui Eriksson and James Neal; it just may be that he needs to be in a mentor/leadership type role to succeed at this point in his career.
Whether or not he can rebound is the biggest question mark surrounding this line. Kreider’s development is a big question, too, but for a young player like him, a lot of his success will hinge upon whether or not his centerman can facilitate his offensive production. Therefore, Richards becomes the most important player on this line.
Furthermore, the third-line centerman position is very, very important in the modern game. With all the line matching that goes on, it’s important that a team has an effective third line that opposing teams have trouble matching up with. Richards could turn the Rangers into a very dangerous team if he gets it going early.
The signing of free agent Dominic Moore has given the Rangers even more options at center, and as a result, Alain Vigneault can move big Brian Boyle out to the wing where he’s been more effective.
Expect Taylor Pyatt or Derek Dorsett to round out the group on most nights. Pyatt is a veteran player who brings a whole lot of size and experience to the rink, and Dorsett is a fierce competitor who likes to throw the body. I doubt Vigneault would rather use a youngster in a bottom-six over tough customers like Pyatt and Dorsett.
In the past, especially in the playoffs, we've seen fourth lines playing major roles. One of the significant reasons the Rangers went down in the second round to the Boston Bruins was because the B’s had a dynamite fourth line that the Rangers couldn’t match up against. For that trio, led by Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille, speed and tenacity was the name of the game.
For the Rangers’ fourth group, it’ll be about whether or not they too can come up big and challenge their opponents on a nightly basis. It’s a very big question to answer, too, because Boyle and Pyatt are not quick players. They’re quite big and it takes them some time to get up ice to pin the puck in the corner. Instead, they may have to use their size to their advantage. Whatever works, I guess, but this group needs to make it terribly difficult for the opposition every time they’re on the ice.
The best teams in this era are those that can run four lines. Boyle, Moore, Dorsett and Pyatt will have a lot to say about the success of the Rangers in 2013-14.