Rangers head into final slate of preseason


Vitali Kravtsov looks to secure a spot on a crowded roster. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Newsday.

With camp less than a week from concluding, the Rangers enter the final slate of preseason. They host the Islanders tonight at the Garden. It’ll likely be a skeleton squad for the bitter rival due to playing mainly regulars on Sunday in an overtime win over Detroit.

On the other hand, the Rangers will have Artemi Panarin back from a mild groin strain. He’ll reunite with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich to form the projected top line we’ll see next week on Opening Night versus Winnipeg. It’s a chance to see the shiny new toy along with second pick Kakko in Manhattan.

Kaapo will be on a intriguing second line with Brett Howden and 2018 first round pick Vitali Kravtsov, who’ll shift to the left side. He’s versatile enough to move around like he did for Russia at the World Junior Championship where he centered the top line last winter. They want to see if Kravtsov can crack the roster. He has good offensive instincts.

With coach David Quinn emphasizing more of a starting lineup he wants to see step it up the final three exhibitions, the third line comprises Ryan Strome sliding in to center Jesper Fast and Brendan Lemieux, who makes his debut after re-signing last week. His feisty element will be vital.

The fourth line will have Lias Andersson between AHL bound vets Micheal Haley and Danny O’Regan. What the staff is doing is taking a look at Andersson in different roles. He’s likely going to be moving up and down between the third and fourth line depending how the center situation goes with him, Howden and expected second pivot Filip Chytil.

Tonight’s defense will feature potential new second pair Marc Staal and promising 21-year old rookie Adam Fox. They’ll draw the top assignment for a night while expected top pair Brady Skjei and Jacob Trouba work together as the second pair against Bridgeport. Brendan Smith gets a look on the third pair with Joe Morrow, who’s on a PTO.

Is this the night Henrik Lundqvist goes all the way? He can use the extra work. Alexandar Georgiev backs up.

Staal knows what’s expected moving forward. Something well known former NYR Blog star Kevin DeLury highlighted.

More is expected of this group. As young as they are, it’s experienced leaders such as Staal they can lean on. There are enough leftovers from the last playoff team in 2017 to learn from. Even if former Ranger Kevin Hayes acted like someone stole his school lunch with his bizarre commentary about the direction the Blueshirts took after he was moved.

You still have the Four Horsemen in Staal, Lundqvist, Fast and Chris Kreider. All who were key parts of the last big run in 2015. Plus potential new captain Mika Zibanejad, who’s improved leaps and bounds in every aspect. Skjei also has taken on more of a leadership role. He was on that ’16-17 roster too and performed well. He needs to become more consistent. Maybe playing with Trouba will help.

As far as what the final roster could look like, it’s coming down to the nitty gritty. I’d imagine more cuts will be made following tonight.

Boo Nieves and Greg McKegg are still in competition for the fourth line or as an extra forward. Smith is hoping to still be an option at both defense and part-time forward. But he’s likely ticketed for Hartford.

The organization must decide what’s best for Kravtsov. To start with the big club, or get more ice time with the Wolf Pack. He’s a top six forward. But won’t start as that if he stays due to the projected top two lines. The third line could be Andersson or Howden between Vladislav Namestnikov and Strome. If that happens, Kravtsov should go to Hartford.

The fourth line is one of Andersson/Howden with likely Lemieux and Fast. That would leave an extra for possibly Nieves or McKegg. Both solid options, who bring a strong work ethic.

Defense seems set if you believe Tony DeAngelo will start on the third pair with Libor Hajek. Ryan Lindgren would be the extra, who could see action. He certainly seems ready playing the hard nosed, physical game most of the D lacks aside from Trouba and Staal, who always battles guys.

Much depends on the salary cap. There’s little wiggle room. Eventually, a trade should be made to free up space. Especially once Kravtsov is ready to become a regular.

The depth up front is much better than previous years. It would be nice to see Yegor Rykov recover from an injury to show what he can do on the back end. After Lindgren, there’s not much defensive depth.

Goalie is deep with starter Lundqvist followed by Georgiev with Igor Shesterkin lurking. Adam Huska is fourth on the depth chart.

There’s a lot to like about the direction this team is taking. It probably will take time to jell. But once they adjust, you can expect a gradual progression.

Given the competitive state of the Metro Division, they might not make the playoffs right away. Especially when you look at what the Flyers, Devils and even the more battle tested Islanders have. However, they should be competitive.

It promises to be an exciting year on Broadway.

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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