Focused Kreider should be considered for Rangers’ next captain

The final home game was full of mixed emotions like the classic Rolling Stones hit. Following a unbelievable pregame ceremony in which NYPD Officer Conor McDonald presented Henrik Lundqvist with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, the Rangers organization paid tribute to former core members Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller in their return to MSG as members of the Lightning.

Then came the game. It started out well with Brady Skjei scoring the first goal but quickly turned around. Spurred on by a McDonagh clean hit on Pavel Buchnevich that saw the second-year Russian forward seek retribution by decking Nikita Kucherov at the end of the first period, the Bolts got momentum from captain Steven Stamkos going after Buchnevich to earn a instigator in a odd fight that didn’t amount to much.

Following second period tallies from Cedric Paquette and Alex Killorn, they took advantage of a puzzling extra minor penalty on Chris Kreider to connect on the power play with Miller rebounding home his 22nd at 35 seconds of the third. Three quickly became five straight goals when Paquette and Brayden Point whizzed shots past a helpless Ondrej Pavelec to make it three goals in a 2:03 span to go from 2-1 up to 5-1.

To their credit, the younger Blueshirts didn’t give up. Instead, a much more confident and stronger Filip Chytil finally got just reward by scoring his first NHL goal parked in front on a carom into a empty net. He deserved it. On one dominant shift earlier, he carried the puck from center ice and flew in with McDonagh defending to get a backhand stuff try on Louis Domingue, who stopped it. It was a great solo effort by a powerful skater who has improved following spending most of the year in Hartford.

Kreider scored his 16th off a rush when he took a pass from Mika Zibanejad and fired a bullet from the left circle by Domingue to make things interesting. It was his 11th point (4-7-11) in the last eight games. He’s been a different player since returning from rib resection surgery to repair a blood clot. Lighter, more consistent and effective, a happier Kreider is coming into his own. One listen to his commentary during the postgame in the locker room said plenty about his mindset.

There’s no doubt that the evolving power forward has emerged as one of the team leaders since the departure of former teammates Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Girardi, McDonagh and Miller. A more mature player, Kreider emphasized the positives from teenagers Chytil and Lias Andersson in a game they can learn from. He talked about how they let it get away against a good team who took full advantage, calling it a “microcosm of our season.”

It was a perfect quote from a cerebral player. Ever since Kreider came back, he’s looked happier. More focused and relaxed, he’s playing his best hockey. Now 26, it might be time to consider him for the Rangers’ next captain. He certainly has the look of a leader for this wave of the future.

With two years remaining on a team friendly deal that pays him an average of $4.625 million through 2020, he has good peak years ahead. A more complete player who can not only dazzle with his speed and shot but be that net front presence that’s a nuisance to opposing goalies, this version of Kreider is the best we’ve seen. He’s one of the players you build around. Investing long-term on him before he hits the open market in 27 months makes sense.

There is no need for the organization to rush on a decision regarding the next captain. Thus far, they’re handling the situation well by delegating the A’s on different players. Marc Staal remains a strong veteran presence along with fan favorite Mats Zuccarello. It’s hard to predict the future for both. However, each likes it here with Zuccarello expressing his love for being a Ranger prior to last night’s game a year away from unrestricted free agency. If he stays, he will be considered for the captaincy.

The only question is is it worth the risk to put the ‘C’ on a proven vet who could be gone in a year? I can’t answer that. Only the Rangers can. How they handle the offseason and next training camp will determine what they decide.

If they think it’s better to rotate three A’s at home and on the road like they did during the first rebuild in ’05-06, that works fine. There are enough players who have been Blueshirts for a good period. Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast also can wear A’s. Both have taken good steps in their development earning added responsibility. Zibanejad got an ‘A’ on Friday. He showed disappointment following the loss admitting he wanted to give the fans a win at home and saying, “It sucks.”

Even though they lost 7-3 with both Miller and Girardi scoring to remind fans of the glory days, the Rangers are headed in the right direction. Kreider is a big reason why. The kids are alright.

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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