In case you hadn’t heard, the Rangers are tough now.
On paper, the additions of former Golden Knights bruiser Ryan Reaves, nasty defenseman Patrik Nemeth, bottom-six grinder Sammy Blais and hard-nosed Barclay Goodrow injected a substantial amount of grit and snarl into the Blueshirts’ lineup. New general manager Chris Drury referred to it as a “trend” of the offseason, but it is seemingly a response to the team’s weak showing against the mighty Islanders and Capitals at the end of last season.
While tweaking the Rangers’ makeup was a necessity, the lineup is still a work in progress. Most of Drury’s moves so far this offseason have applied to the bottom six, aside from surrendering top-line winger Pavel Buchnevich in a trade with the Blues.
There are still areas that could be addressed at the top of the Rangers’ lineup, however, such as a new 1B center with Ryan Strome garnering so much interest around the league. There is also the matter of surrounding Goodrow with players who are going to bring the best out of him. And yes, the Jack Eichel rumors continue to swirl.
At the moment, however, the Rangers’ top six and top four defensemen look relatively the same. It’s the rest of the lineup that has undergone some remodeling — and sandpaper was certainly used in the construction.
Considering how deep the Rangers are at left wing, it’s likely that someone will have to flip to the right side. In one scenario, Chris Kreider could remain on the top line to the left of center Mika Zibanejad, with Alexis Lafreniere playing on his off-side on the right. There’s also the possibility of Lafreniere on the left of Zibanejad with Kaapo Kakko making the jump to the first line.
If Kakko doesn’t move up, the Finn will likely sit on the right wing of the second line, with Strome and Artemi Panarin. Former head coach David Quinn gave that trio a try last season, and Kakko seemingly began to grow into his role on that line toward the end. In 136:18 of ice time together, Kakko, Strome and Panarin combined for nine goals and 24 high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick.
Vitali Kravtsov is also expected to compete for the right-wing spot on the second line after getting a couple of looks there last season as well.
The third line is where things begin to get tricky. Goodrow said he is comfortable at wing or center, while Chytil is used to playing in the middle, but may be better suited to the wing. Assuming Goodrow remains on the wing, where he played in Tampa Bay, Chytil would center the third line.
New head coach Gerard Gallant said he believes in giving young players opportunities and not sticking them on the fourth line. That’s why Kravtsov will probably play in the top nine at the very least, which could mean he’d flank the third line next to Goodrow if Kakko beats him out for a spot in the top six.
If Gallant is looking to forge a checking line with Goodrow, then Kreider is one of the few current options to serve in that kind of third-line role on the right wing. Morgan Barron, who appeared in five games with the Rangers last season, is also certainly in the mix for a bottom-six role with his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame.
Goodrow was at the top of his game when he played alongside the likes of Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman with the Lightning. Kreider and Chytil are not exactly comparable to those two. And for a six-year commitment to Goodrow, the third line should still be under construction.
Barring injury or another acquisition, Blais (also an option to play next to Goodrow) and Reaves are essentially locks to play on the fourth line. Reaves has experience in such a role as a key member of the Golden Knights’ fourth line during their run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, 2017-18.
Barron, Kevin Rooney, Julien Gauthier and Greg McKegg are expected to battle it out for the last spot to round out the forward group. Winger Tim Gettinger, who played in the final two games of last season, may also be competing for a job come training camp.
The Rangers are somewhat different, yet the same. There is still time for that to change.