Competition continues for deeper Blueshirts


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Brandon Pirri celebrates a goal in the Rangers’ preseason win over the Devils Thursday. The rematch is tonight in Newark. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers Twitter.

Later tonight, the Rangers pay a visit to Newark to face the Devils for the second time in three nights. This late preseason continues due to an entertaining World Cup dominated by Canada, who pulled off a fantastic finish stunning Europe with the tying and winning goals in the last two-plus minutes.

The competition for roster spots continues for a deeper Blueshirts. With a crowded forward crop that features kids Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey along with vets Nathan Gerbe, Tanner Glass, Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris, Max Lapierre and the impressive Brandon Pirri, there’s a lot for the coaching staff to assess. It won’t be an easy decision on who makes it and who gets cut.

Thus far, Buchnevich has taken part in both exhibitions getting the chance to play with good players. He’s fared alright. If for some reason he doesn’t make it, he has an out clause to return to the KHL. Although I didn’t see the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Devils on Thursday night, reports were positive on Vesey, who right away had a breakaway off the opening draw and drew a penalty. The big free agent signing out of Harvard is gonna make it and start in the top nine. It’s just a question if Buchnevich will join him.

With Pirri looking like a steal with three goals so far including a pair and a helper the other night, it’s hard to believe nobody wanted the 25-year old who’s on his fourth team. He certainly has good speed and great hands. Able to finish as he proved with the Panthers scoring 22 goals in ’14-15, Pirri should be a lock. Especially with Oscar Lindberg out until November. Will he play on the third line or center the fourth providing more offense? Alain Vigneault prefers a fourth line with physicality. But if he went with Pirri, Jesper Fast and either Gerbe or Grabner, it would generate enough speed to create offense. Plus both Fast and Gerbe/Grabner are good defensively unlike Pirri, who admittedly still needs work.

Vigneault favorites Glass and Lapierre remain in camp. Glass entering the final year of his contract while Lapierre is here on a pro tryout. Both played together in Vancouver on the team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. Times are changing. The days of the slower skating pluggers who can mix it up are dwindling. Not that the roster couldn’t use some toughness. It’s been a sore spot under Vigneault. Opponents have run roughshod taking runs at Henrik Lundqvist while injuring top defenseman Ryan McDonagh and going after Derek Stepan.

There is no Wayne Simmonds, who can do everything. Chris Kreider is still working on becoming a better player. His first preseason game was as complete an effort as I’ve seen. He played both ends while scoring and setting up goals in a win over the Islanders. Certainly no stranger to physicality, Kreider can drop the gloves as he proved last year coming to Stepan’s aid. But it’s not something he needs to do often. The Rangers need him on the ice. His size, skill, speed and strength are a rare combo. Is this the year he breaks through?

Along with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, they make up a young core of forwards who are expected to contribute more. Miller looking to build on a career season while Hayes looks to bounce back in his third year with better line mates. Adding the talented Mika Zibanejad from Ottawa for Derick Brassard looks like a wise move. Younger, cheaper and a dangerous right-handed shot as he demonstrated with a rocket for a power play goal on Tuesday, he looks capable of taking the next step as a player. He’s scored 20 and 21 in consecutive years. Zibanejad will be restricted next summer.

Mats Zuccarello had a strong tournament helping lead surprising Team Europe to the finals. The Rangers’ leading scorer was sharp using his creativity and skill to set up two overtime winners while not being afraid to mix it up. If Vigneault decides to keep Zuccarello with Stepan and moves Rick Nash up, that would mean Kreider could stick with Zibanejad and either Buchnevich, Miller or Vesey. Either way, the third line will be improved.

As for the blue line, Vigneault has been supportive of Dylan McIlrath. Indicating that the former first round pick has looked more confident defensively, hopefully it’s a positive sign that McIlrath is in his plans. He and Brady Skjei could comprise a young third pair with the perfect left-right combo Vigneault prefers. Don’t forget Nick Holden, who Jeff Gorton added from Colorado. A late bloomer, he can kill penalties and help improve a weak area. Also why Gorton signed Gerbe and Grabner up front. Adam Clendening has done nothing to hurt his chances. With two helpers in the first preseason game, the offensive minded skating right D could be a power play option. Interestingly, the 23-year old is on his sixth organization.

In the win Thursday, backup Antti Raanta split duty with Mackenzie Skapski, who had another solid outing in relief.

Boasting a deeper roster has its benefits. With other young players Ryan GroppMarek HrivikRobin Kovacs, Nicklas JensenCristoval Nieves, Adam Tambellini, Mat Bodie, Ryan Graves and Thursday’s first star John Gilmour (goal, assist) in the system, Hartford should be loaded.

When they take on the Devils at 7 PM, here is the lineup:

Kreider-Zibanejad-Miller

Vesey-McRae-Jensen

Grabner-Gerbe-Fast

Gropp-Lapierre-Brown

Skjei-Clendening

Bodie-Girardi

Gilmour-Paliotta

Raanta

Hellberg

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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