Rangers have center weakness that must be resolved


Kevin Hayes continues to progress as a second line shutdown center under Alain Vigneault. As he improves, so will the Rangers who still are thin at center after Hayes and Mika Zibanejad. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy SNY. 

By show of hands, who actually thought Mika Zibanejad would be a point-per-game replacing Derek Stepan as the top center? Well, with nine goals and 10 assists for a team-leading 19 points in the first 19 games, at least there’s that for the Rangers, who finally had a six-game win streak end last night in Chicago with the Blackhawks beating them 6-3.

The 24-Year old Zibanejad has more than filled Stepan’s shoes. Anchoring the cohesive KZB Line featuring Chris Kreider and emerging sophomore Pavel Buchnevich, he’s earning that new contract that pays him an average of $5.35 million over the next five years through 2022.

Without the production of that line, the Rangers would be sunk. Excuse the inconsistent defense for a second after it reared its ugly head at the United Center. The offense is reliant on Zibanejad, who quickly is becoming a team leader. He makes that line go along with the supremely skilled Buchnevich, whose eight goals and eight assists for 16 points place him third in team scoring. The third part Kreider does the heavy lifting in front and behind the net where he made a bullet pass for a Zibanejad finish in the first period on Wednesday night. He has yet to be consistent. He scored all five of his goals over a six-game span. At 5-4-9, he needs to pick it up.

Entering the year, coach Alain Vigneault knew it would be a challenge after losing a reliable player in Stepan, who he trusted in every situation. Such is life in the salary cap era. Players with big contracts are sacrificed before no-trade clauses kick in. That way teams can afford other key restricted free agents who are due hefty raises. Following the first round disappointment in 2016, Derick Brassard was sent packing to Ottawa for Zibanejad in a trade that also netted a second round pick which became Brendan Smith. He was a key cog in the club’s first round win over Montreal but has yet to get untracked after re-signing for four years at $4.35 million AAV last summer. Vigneault is looking for Smith to be better when he returns to the lineup tomorrow in Columbus.

By subtracting Brassard and Stepan the past two offseasons, the Rangers have drastically changed from the ‘13-14 and ‘14-15 rosters that made deep playoff runs. They’re no longer considered a Stanley Cup contender by most experts. It’s going to be harder to qualify for the postseason this time. The poor start guaranteed it.

This is a flawed roster in which all sums of its parts must perform well. Otherwise, you get predictable ugly results like the awful third period that chased Henrik Lundqvist yesterday. It’s not only the D which is harped upon in many circles. It’s also the center situation. One which must be resolved.

After Zibanejad and improving two-way second center Kevin Hayes, it gets paper thin. As Hayes continues to progress in more of a shutdown role which could hinder his offense, David Desharnais is currently the team’s third center. The ex-Hab is a nice player who works hard enough but he’s also been skipped over in the rotation by Vigneault in some third periods. He has two goals and six assists thus far. Hardly enough production to merit him playing between J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey. When GM Jeff Gorton signed him, it was to be a fourth line pivot who could replace Oscar Lindberg. He’s not a top nine forward.

At some point, the organization must make a decision on how to upgrade the center position. It’s a glaring weakness against better competition. You can never have enough centers. With Desharnais on the third line and promising rookie Boo Nieves centering the fourth line, it’s an area of concern.

Vigneault prefers using Miller on the wing where he can create more off the forecheck. Currently tied with Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh for the team lead with 12 assists, Miller is very effective along the walls at recovering pucks, skating into open ice and finding open teammates. I can understand why the coach would be hesitant to move him back to center. It puts added responsibility on Miller and hurts his production. He’s currently 3-12-15 which ranks fourth on the team. He does need to shoot more and avoid missed assignments such as on one of Artem Anisimov’s three goals.

Michael Grabner remains on the checking line with Nieves and Jesper Fast. His eight goals are tied with Buchnevich. Half have come with an empty net demonstrating the trust Vigneault has in the defensively responsible winger with good instincts and game breaking speed. Grabner and Fast usually replace Buchnevich and Kreider at the end of games when protecting leads. A wise move by a coach that’s been often criticized for in game adjustments.

The issue is can this team survive with the current centers. Hayes scored his fourth goal last night. He’s getting better overall. But it’s taken away from his offense. He only has four helpers, meaning the team’s second center has only eight points. That’s crazy. Hayes no longer plays power play with one of the top ranked units producing at a high clip thanks to Shattenkirk, Zibanejad, Buchnevich, McDonagh and Kreider.

For Hayes, he must find offense five on five and continues to create it shorthanded as one of the key penalty killers. With Rick Nash heating up and Mats Zuccarello the playmaker, his production should improve. It’s a matter of time. He’s certainly showed positive signs over this last stretch. k

It really becomes about the bottom two lines. Are Miller and Vesey being shortchanged? Nothing against Desharnais. But wouldn’t he be better suited on the fourth line?

Whether it’s recalling a Vinny Lettieri or moving Miller back to center and sliding Grabner up, there needs to be marked improvement. Opponents are going to focus on taking away the KZB line. That will mean more from the supporting cast.

Shattenkirk has been instrumental providing the Blueshirts with a legit power play quarterback and offensive defenseman. He’s the best right shot they’ve had since Sergei Zubov. His ability to get shots through and find the open man make him a dual threat. It’s allowed McDonagh to be the second option with Brady Skjei third. McDonagh has a dozen assists while Skjei is 2-3-5 forming a good tandem with Shattenkirk at even strength.

Offense from the back end is important in today’s transition game where points are left open. The offensive boost has helped the Rangers.

With the team not rushing first round pick Filip Chytil, Lettieri or young blueliners Neal Pionk, Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Graves, they’ll remain patient. Development is the key before they summon anyone else from Hartford. That patience has worked with Nieves, who has adequately filled the fourth line center slot. He won eight of nine draws in less than nine minutes of ice time.

The question for management is how long will they wait to address the center hole. Trades are tough to make due to matching salaries. At first, I believe they’ll try to solve it in house. So Vigneault will continue to mix and match as he sees fit. If that means double shifting Zibanejad or shifting Miller, he will.

The next test is tomorrow at Columbus. While the focus will surround Smith’s return, keep a close eye on the center situation. It remains problematic.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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