Lafreniere will be nice, but Rangers must address center situation and improve depth

As this strange summer has gone on with the Conference Finals finally beginning during Labor Day Weekend, one thing stands out. In order to have success, you need the horses to go far. Also a bit of luck. Just ask the Avalanche, who couldn’t overcome their key injuries in a closely fought second round that went the Stars way in sudden death.

The expanded format has definitely boosted the Islanders. Prior to the season pause on March 12, they found themselves winless in seven and out of the playoffs. However, the pandemic allowed them to recover. If anybody benefited from the four month hiatus the most, it’s the Rangers’ bitter rival who finds itself in its first Eastern Conference Final since ’93. They’ll get underway versus the Lightning later tonight in Edmonton.

While it’s true the grinding defensive style of Barry Trotz’ club has worn down the Panthers, Capitals and Flyers, it’s been their center depth that has been a big reason for why they’re here. Trotz is able to confidently roll four lines and play all three defensive pairs without any issues. He also can count on either goalie.

In reassessing the trade deadline moves GM Lou Lamoriello made, by adding Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene to a good core that features Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Anders Lee, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey, Devon Toews, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech, the Hall of Fame executive supplied them with enough depth to make a run. Throw in Jordan Eberle, Derick Brassard, Leo Komarov, Nick Leddy and grinders Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck and they are very deep.

It’s been a total team effort for the Islanders, who boast five double digit scorers led by playmaker Bailey with 17 points (2-15-17). Nelson, Lee and Pageau are tied for the team lead with seven goals. Barzal, who has 13 points (5-8-13), has been dangerous with Lee and Eberle. Even Brassard has rediscovered what made him Big Game Brass by tallying four points in the last three games versus the Flyers.

How does that relate to the Rangers, who have a huge off-season ahead? They made strides this past season thanks to the brilliance of Artemi Panarin and dramatic improvement of Mika Zibanejad. Ryan Strome had a career year and will want more money as a restricted free agent. So will Tony DeAngelo. Chris Kreider got his new contract.

There also will be decisions on unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast along with Group II FA’s Alex Georgiev and Brendan Lemieux. The former likely staying put with Henrik Lundqvist probably done. Whether it’s a buyout or retirement to possibly go home, we don’t know. Who knows? Maybe he would consider signing for a year with a contender if he’s available.

Whatever John Davidson and Jeff Gorton decide, they know they’ll need to change the roster. Something Gorton hinted at following a quick exit from the preliminary round in which Carolina dominated them in three games. Why were they so easy to play against? The answer can be found in their style and regarding a lack of scoring depth.

The defense struggled mightily against the Hurricanes. The recent hire of former Pens assistant Jacques Martin should help. A defensive minded coach with lots of experience including as the former bench boss of the Senators, he can guide the D in the right direction.

However, new Devils coach Lindy Ruff took unfair blame for a revamped blueline that featured newcomers Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox and long-term investment Jacob Trouba. Brady Skjei wound up on the Canes once the organization decided to keep Kreider. Trouba can’t go another year through multiple partners. Brendan Smith isn’t the right fit. Marc Staal will likely play out his final year. Whether it’s with DeAngelo remains to be seen.

In a little over a month, the Blueshirts will make it official and select from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) out of Rimouski Oceanic, left wing Alexis Lafreniere. He’s the reward for winning the second part of the lottery. Even if I never agreed with the process, it’s nice to see the team catch a break. Lafreniere is a future star who makes teammates better. He will light up Broadway.

Here’s the thing. Now that they’re loaded on the wing with Kreider, Lafreniere, Panarin, Pavel Buchnevich, Kaapo Kakko, what will they decide about the center position? You have a legit top pivot in Zibanejad, who blossomed into the first line player they envisioned. He played mostly with Kreider and Buchnevich at even strength while being a power play weapon due to his huge right shot. He, Panarin and DeAngelo were a handful on the top unit with Kreider and Strome.

As productive as Strome was during the season while benefiting from Panarin, is he a number two center? Probably not. A year away from becoming unrestricted, it’s likely they’ll offer him a prove it one-year deal. It would be best for both sides. That would give the team options including making him available for trade if they want to move on.

That could depend on Filip Chytil. Although he shows flashes of his ability, he isn’t a finished product. I still don’t know if his best position is center due to the inability to win face-offs. He tries hard, but isn’t consistent in the middle. There are defensive lapses which is expected from a young player. At some point, he must improve to reward the organization’s faith in the former 21st pick of the 2017 Draft. While Lias Andersson attempts to prove he has a future back home for HV-71, Chytil must perform better. He just celebrated his 21st birthday. It’s time to find out what he is.

The Rangers are weak in the middle because they don’t know yet about Chytil and Brett Howden, who showed improvement during the three-game elimination in the Play In phase, still must prove he’s more than a fourth liner. He can win draws and play penalty kill while bringing a hard work ethic. He looks like more of a center than wing. It’s just that he remains fourth on the depth chart assuming Strome stays.

Last season, Kakko played a lot with Chytil on the third line. He wasn’t ready for the top six due to a variety of factors. That included his skating, hockey sense and conditioning. He showed signs in the reboot of looking more confident. But didn’t produce. The language barrier and him being a diabetic are other factors. He remains a young prospect with a high ceiling. We’ll see what Year Two brings.

For too much of ’19-20, David Quinn relied mostly on the top six which included two-way forward Fast, who they can bring back for a reasonable contract. I would do say three years at around $3.25 million AAV. He might want four and $3.5 million. Considering where they are in the rebuild, I feel he’s still a key player who can help the younger players. You can do a lot worse than having Fast start on your third line. In a perfect world, he’d eventually play with Howden and Lemieux on a checking line.

Improving the team depth is vital to success. If they can’t, they probably aren’t a playoff team in 2020-21. Would they consider moving a Buchnevich and/or Chytil with say that Carolina first for a two-way center that can fill the void on the second line? It’s only a suggestion.

The team believes they would be better off sticking with the long-term plan. If that’s true, then I don’t expect the postseason. There’s too many good teams to jump over. They’d have to take a quantum leap to do it. I still view them as a team in transition capable of 85 points. In the East, you have to hit about 95 to qualify. Especially inside the division, which could see a dip from both the Caps and Pens. But they’re still loaded compared to the Rangers.

What happens if the Islanders win? That’s hard to say. I can’t imagine it. Beating flawed opponents like the Caps and Flyers is one thing. It’s quite another if they can get through the Lightning, who even without Steven Stamkos, look like the team to beat. We’ll see what the Game One status is for Nikita Kucherov. They still boast Brayden Point, whose identity they seem to take on. Plus Victor Hedman patrolling the blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. They’re a lot grittier than the team that rolled over to the Blue Jackets last year.

In terms of the Rangers, finding a way to be more competitive means improving lines three and four while creating more depth at the back end. If that means Libor Hajek can finally stick, so be it. They are still waiting on K’Andre Miller, who enters his first professional year. Unless he surprises everyone in training camp this winter, there’s no reason to rush him. Let him properly develop. That’s why Nils Lundkvist is playing overseas again. There isn’t a spot available for him. The restart of NHL ’21 won’t be until around Christmas.

That also is why Vitali Kravtsov is playing for Chelyabinsk Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). It should be better for his development. We won’t see him until possibly after the season in Russia finishes next March. Ditto for Lauri Pajunemi, who put himself on the radar last year in Finland.

If there’s one young player who could debut next season, it’s Morgan Barron. A sixth round pick in 2017, he performed admirably in three years at Cornell University. He turns 22 this December 2. I would expect him to start at Hartford.

The team will be limited in what they can do in large part to the flat salary cap holding at $81.5 million. Teams will have to get creative. That’s why I believe if both Fast and DeAngelo want to stay along with Strome, they’ll take less. It’s also why there could be a trade.

If Davidson and Gorton can improve team depth, that would be ideal. As the Isles have shown along with the very deep Golden Knights, it goes a long way.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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