On Friday, the Rangers assigned forwards Nathan Gerbe and Tanner Glass to Hartford along with goalie Magnus Hellberg and forward Cristoval Nieves. None of the moves were a surprise. Gerbe didn’t have a good camp and Glass played hard but was the odd man out. So, they go down with Hellberg, who will probably back up Mackenzie Skapski.
As for Nieves, he was impressive in his only preseason appearance. Coach Alain Vigneault liked his size, speed and defensive instincts which would make him a good fit on the fourth line and penalty kill. He also is a center who can take face-offs. For now, he goes to Hartford for some preseason action and will start there. But based on the praise Vigneault gave, his stay could be short. Especially with Oscar Lindberg still a month away.
At the moment, 24 players remain in training camp. That includes goalies Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta along with 14 forwards and 8 defensemen.
The 14 forwards are Pavel Buchnevich, Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, Josh Jooris, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Brandon Pirri, Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello.
The eight defensemen are Adam Clendening, Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei and Marc Staal.
For Vigneault and the organization, they’ll keep eight D at the start with Lindberg not ready. Clendening having a strong camp assured that, which led to Gerbe not making the roster. That also means Skjei starts here with his strong skating too hard to ignore despite a so/so preseason. He should definitely be in the lineup next week. It becomes a tough scenario for McIlrath, who will be a healthy scratch when the season begins against the Islanders Oct. 13. Who else comes out is between Clendening and Holden.
Girardi will be in the lineup. He will be given every chance to redeem himself. However, having eight defensemen means they can sit him out when the time comes. McIlrath is the likely replacement. His size, toughness and physicality are strengths on a team that lacks it. As frustrating as it is for him, he will get his chance.
Holden was added in the off-season from Colorado due to his penalty killing. He gives the coaching staff another left-handed D who can play key minutes. However, he struggled in the loss to the Flyers. Most of the blue line did. With the exception of Girardi, who had his best effort making a couple of smart reads in the neutral zone that created goals for Buchnevich and Kreider.
Clendening was impressive due to his skating and offensive instincts. He can be a weapon on the power play. The right D who has bounced around proved capable of playing the left point. A pass first defenseman who meshed well with new weapon Zibanejad, who gives them that dangerous righty one-timer from the off wing. His play at even strength was okay. But defense isn’t a strong suit. So, he will not be an everyday player.
Staal came in and had a better camp than last year. Healthier, he was one of the best defensemen. If he is back to a higher level, that bodes well. Unfortunately, partner Klein struggled. He’s an important player who Vigneault has leaned on in the top four. Does he start with Staal or McDonagh? Clendening can play with Skjei if they choose him over Holden, who brings more defense.
Even with eight D, there remain question marks. There were too many instances in the last few exhibitions where their play reminded of last season. A recurring nightmare that can’t play out in an improved division. No doubt McDonagh must have a bounce back year. Especially with Keith Yandle gone. The captain will play a key role on the power play and be looked upon for offense. His defense has become an issue. Have the injuries slowed him down? Or can he get back to the All-Star level that had him as one of the top defensemen in the sport.
With the Rangers going with eight blue liners, that means they’ll only carry one extra forward. There’s no doubt Buchnevich and Vesey belong. Both showing glimpses of why there’s excitement for the future. Zibanejad looks like a suitable and cheaper replacement for Derick Brassard. Kreider had his best preseason looking the part. He scored three goals and really looks focused. The top line should be Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich at the start, leaving Stepan with Nash and Zuccarello. That could be a formidable top six.
Hayes should have better players with the talented Vesey, versatile Miller and offensive-minded Pirri options. Pirri is more of a top nine guy than a fourth liner. If both Buchnevich and Vesey are in the lineup, where do they play Miller? He can be plugged anywhere and is playing on the second power play unit. Pirri will also see time there where he was most effective with a shoot first mentality.
The fourth line is interesting. If Vigneault prefers Pirri in the top nine, then it’s possible Miller could center the fourth line with Fast and Grabner. Unless they decide to have Jooris center it and sit Grabner, whose strongest asset is his penalty killing and speed. Once Lindberg returns, the checking line will be improved.
On paper, the Rangers’ four lines look promising. The improved depth and young talent should make them more exciting. It all depends on the defense and goaltending. Yes. I went there. Lundqvist will again face pressure with the D at times breaking down. He’ll have to be better. Raanta is a good backup who can play 20 games and give Lundqvist more rest.
A good start would help. If not for Lundqvist standing on his head the first month last year, they don’t make the playoffs. This roster is deeper. How it plays out remains to be seen.