Though it’s early in the preseason, the 2013-14 New York Rangers are beginning to take shape. Newcomers and youngsters alike have quickly assumed their roles among the returning ranks and the final roster appears closer to being set at this point than in years past.
With the absences of Ryan Callahan, Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan, there are many holes in the lineup, and players like Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot and Oscar Lindberg have made quality first impressions as they look to stake claim to roster spots.
Their performances are just one of many surprise takeaways thus far from Rangers training camp, which was sure to provide many, considering the team employs a new coach.
Read on to see what the other most interesting developments are—and how they could affect the team.
Young Players Will Get a Shot
Incoming head coach Alain Vigneault arrived in New York with what appears thus far to be an unfair stigma as a coach who is wary of playing young players. During his time in Vancouver, the 52-year-old leaned on an older crop of players and was criticized for his treatment of younger ones like Jordan Schroeder.
But in the early stages of his Broadway tenure, Vigneault appears willing to give youngsters a legitimate opportunity to make the big club.
Chris Kreider, who disappointed in his rookie season in 2013, has skated on what seems to be the projected first line with established veterans Rick Nash and Brad Richards.
Mats Zuccarello, who I believe can still be considered “young,” has also gotten a preliminary opportunity in the top six, skating with Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot.
Furthermore, Swedish imports Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg, who both had success in the Swedish Elitserien, have been handed golden opportunities to make the Rangers while Callahan, Stepan and Hagelin remain out of the lineup.
The duo would bring experience, talent and rounded two-way play to an already responsible squad.
New arrival Danny Kristo and former Connecticut Whale forward Marek Hrivik are two other younger players who, early in the preseason, have caught the attention of Vigneault.
After a strong senior year at North Dakota and a promising showing at the Traverse City Tournament earlier this month, Kristo has worked his way onto AV’s shortlist of camp hopefuls. Hrivik, too, has proven that his blend of skill and smarts could be a valuable addition to the Rangers.
Finally, there’s J.T. Miller, who’s been injured for nearly all of training camp.
But what’s interesting about the American is that he’s claimed Marian Gaborik’s No. 10 sweater.
Could there be something going on behind the scenes? Young players don’t choose jersey numbers until they’ve made the team. The development could end up meaning nothing, but it is curious.
What’s most important here is that the Rangers have good young talent and it’s great to see Vigneault giving the most impressive players a real shot at making the big club, especially considering that many bystanders—myself included—felt he wouldn’t.
AV Is Committed to Creating More Offense
It was clear Glen Sather and the rest of the Rangers’ brass were interested in taking the club in a different direction when they fired John Tortorella—the king of grinding hockey—and hired Vigneault, a coach who encourages his players to use time and space to create offense.
Since training camp opened, AV made it clear he wanted his players to get pucks and bodies to the net.
Under Tortorella, the offense was too focused on the corners. Torts believed the team was most effective when it created offense below the hash marks.
As a result, the Rangers found themselves in a vicious cycle of cycling the puck in the corner and limiting their opportunities to get the puck to the front of the net, where goals are scored.
Through two preseason games, we’ve seen a conscious effort by the offense to get the puck to the net.
The effort was there in the first game against the Devils, but more bodies had to get to the net. We saw a little more of that in the second game against the Flyers on Tuesday night, and the Rangers ended up scoring more goals.
Another thing to note is Vigneault’s desire for the defense to get more involved in the offense.
Marc Staal, one of the league’s premier defensive defensemen, revealed in an interview with MSG that AV has encouraged all of the team's defenders to get up the ice and help form a five-man attack in the offensive zone.
The idea of a five-man attack is something Vigneault experimented with in Vancouver.
Defensemen like Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo contributed greatly to the team’s overall offense, and the Canucks were a better team because of it.
Fans will be pleased to see a change in philosophy in 2013-14, as they’ve been calling for more offensive hockey for a few seasons now. Their prayers have been answered and we can expect the Rangers to play more attractive hockey in the coming season.
Vigneault Welcomes Competition
Coming full circle here with the original perception of AV as coach who favors veterans, it was surprising to see Martin Biron’s job apparently up for grabs.
Initially, Biron was absent from the first two days of camp, as he was dealing with a personal issue. In his absence, the Rangers signed journeyman goaltender Johan Hedberg to a professional tryout agreement (PTO).
It was unclear whether Hedberg was brought in because Biron wasn’t ready to go or Vigneault was looking to create some competition at that backup keeper spot.
Turns out it was the latter.
Vigneault kept Hedberg around until a couple of days ago, when the Rangers terminated the veteran’s PTO. But after Biron returned to the team, Vigneault made it clear Hedberg was going to stick around.
Obviously, Hedberg couldn’t make the impression he hoped to, but AV’s decision to light a fire under Biron’s hockey pants is admirable.
And, in truth, the French Canadian isn’t free and clear yet.
Cam Talbot has impressed in both preseason games and remains in camp with the Rangers. The chances of him ousting Biron are slim—he’s a young goalie and needs starting minutes, which he won’t get in New York—but it’s nice to see Vigneault promoting a “nobody-is-safe” mantra.