The Time is Now for Rangers to give kids a real look

Coming off the worst loss of this 56-game season which pretty much ended any playoff aspirations, the Rangers have five games remaining. With the pressure off following the 4-0 home debacle, they’ll try to move on.

That begins Saturday evening at Nassau Coliseum where they’ll meet the rival Islanders for the final time off the Meadowbrook Parkway. The next time they’ll see their blood rival, it’ll be at the new state of the art UBS Arena at Belmont Park in November 2021. It really looks like the end for the classic rivals playing at the old barn. It would be nice to go out the right way with a win. Especially after the last two lopsided defeats by a combined 10-1.

With that stated, this is a chance for the Rangers to give a real look at the young players who’ll be what it’s all about when the franchise is finally ready to compete. That would include Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Vitaly Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, Zac Jones and Morgan Barron, who was finally recalled from Hartford. He’s expected to make his NHL debut later today.

Not included are Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Igor Shesterkin. The organization already knows what they are. Particularly Fox, who’s already become a special player to build around on the blue line. You can add the same for Shesterkin, who should finish in the top three for the Calder Trophy. The 25-year old Russian looks to be a future top goalie. It’ll be interesting to see if Alex Georgiev will stay as the backup. Having recovered from a slump, it would be wise to protect him. He’s likely to get the nod in goal against an opponent he’s done well against.

While there’s been so much hoopla surrounding Broadway star Artemi Panarin, his showing on Thursday night was the worst of the two-year run so far. The Bread Man didn’t have one shot on goal and was blanketed by a disciplined Islanders defense. It wasn’t his best game. That can also be said of Mika Zibanejad, who at least had a few shots that got through on Semyon Varlamov. However, the top center only has an empty net goal and two assists in the season series. He wasn’t much better versus the Penguins, going 2-1-3 with a minus-seven rating in eight games.

The 28-year old Zibanejad is extremely likable and says the right things. He admitted that the Isles are tough and frustrate them. While that’s true, it doesn’t explain his performance against them. It’s very hard to understand his uneven year. COVID might’ve played a role in the first two months. A year away from unrestricted status, is it in the team’s best interest to give Zibanejad a long-term contract that could pay him upwards of $8.5 to 9 million into his 30’s? That’ll be left for management.

If Panarin and Zibanejad are the 1-2 punch currently, then Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome are the next two key forwards along with Chris Kreider. Kreider was badly missed on Thursday. There was no pressure on Varlamov, who didn’t have to contend with any net front presence. Neither Buchnevich or Strome established themselves. Buchnevich is having a career year. Due a raise as a Group II free agent this summer, will he be kept or dangled by GM Jeff Gorton to potentially upgrade the lack of grit? As for Strome, he will also turn unrestricted next year. The decision making by the organization will help shape the roster for the future beyond 2022.

For most of the season, coach David Quinn has relied heavily on the Fox-Lindgren tandem along with the top six for the bulk of the scoring. That includes the power play where he has leaned on the top unit that’s mostly featured Fox, Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider and Strome. The other day, they decided to utilize Buchnevich in Kreider’s spot. Needless to say, it wasn’t effective. Even though they only had two power plays, it hinged too much on the top guns. In a game where nobody was going with it out of reach, would it have hurt to see what Lafreniere, Kakko, Chytil, Kravtsov and Jones could’ve done? Those are the kids who deserve more of a chance in the final five games.

We already have learned how confident Lafreniere has become. His game has taken off since being moved onto the Zibanejad unit with Buchnevich. The 2020 top pick has shown enough improvement in his game to demonstrate why he’ll become the on ice leader in the next two years. It’ll be as much about him as Fox. With 10 goals and eight assists including 2-2-4 over the last four games, the 19-year old Canadian isn’t shying away from the battles during and after whistles. With four of his 10 goals game-winners, Lafreniere has what it takes to become a star.

Even though he’s only credited with a goal and two assists due to the NHL taking a helper away from him, the 21-year old Kravtsov looks to be very poised with and without the puck. It hasn’t mattered which line he’s played on. Even with Quinn using him on the fourth line mostly with Brett Howden and Kevin Rooney, his skating and skill set show a mature player who makes teammates better. He should continue to have an increased role in the last five games. Kravtsov was used on the Kid Line with Chytil and Kakko. They were a lot more effective than the top two lines.

The statistics have Kakko at eight goals and eight assists in 44 games. Although he’s shown improvement with his overall game and skating, there will be more expectations on the 20-year old former second pick in 2019 to perform at a consistent level. Toss out the metrics. It will be about an increase in shots and production. Make no mistake. While the second-year Finnish right wing has worked hard, Kakko must become a better scorer next season. If not, then maybe he’ll never become the player he’s supposed to be.

There are moments where Chytil gets fans out of their seats with his explosive skating and scoring chances. Over the first part of his career, that’s produced some exciting goals off the rush. The 8-12-20 in 37 contests are okay. If you prorated it over 82, he’d top 40 points. A marked improvement from what he’s done thus far. A promising player who’s still just 21, the former ’17 first round pick still has areas to work on if he’s to become a reliable top nine forward. That includes face-offs and board battles where he struggles. Is Chytil truly a center? Face-offs have been a team issue again. When does the organization bring in a face-off coach who can help improve the centers on key draws? Brian Boyle fits the bill. I’d love to see the former Ranger back teaching an important part of the game.

If we already have a good idea of how good Fox is and appreciate how tough Lindgren is even though we’re unlikely to see him after that hit with Cal Clutterbuck that saw Lindgren injured due to the plexiglass, it’s time to find out more about Jones. An excellent skater with offensive instincts, he needs to get more power play time. It’s also time for Quinn to play him more at five-on-five. See what he can do. He did it with Libor Hajek, who’s at least proven to be an NHL defenseman. The smooth skating Jones is a player with upside.

When it comes to Year One for Miller, the 21-year old defenseman shows flashes of the potential he has. At times, he uses the 6-5, 210 pound frame well by delivering checks and blocking shots. The 85 hits and 69 blocks are nothing to sneeze at. That proves Miller can become a good top four defenseman. There are moments where he relies too much on that reach. That sometimes gets him caught out of position. Taking the right angles and utilizing more of the physicality are areas he must improve on. The skating at times can also be an issue. However, he has the capability to jump into the rush and create offense. The Wisconsin product must become a two-way player the Rangers can rely on.

With the injury to Lindgren, we could see Tarmo Reunanen again. The forgotten player who picked up a helper on a Panarin goal in his first game. He looks like more of a good skating left defenseman with offensive instincts. Given that it’s only a matter of time before top European D prospect Nils Lundkvist signs, what exactly is his role? Is there a future on Broadway or perhaps another NHL city due to the numbers game? The same can be echoed for Matthew Robertson. There are a lot of young defensemen in the Rangers system. We know Jacob Trouba isn’t going anywhere. His physicality, grit and veteran leadership are missed in the games we’ve seen against the Islanders. He has formed a good partnership with Miller on the second pair. Undoubtedly, the top four should remain intact for ’21-22.

The play of well respected veteran Brendan Smith cannot be ignored. He has been a solid contributor for this team. Even if he never lived up to the contract they gave him after the 2017 Playoffs, somehow Smith has persevered to fill whatever role they’ve asked him to. From being a part-time fourth line wing to moving back into the top six, he has been a good leader on and off the ice for a young team. When interviewed, Smith always has good things to say. He’s never a bad quote. Is there a place for him when his contract expires? He would likely be asked to accept a lesser role as the sixth defenseman until a kid grabs it. I feel he could attract interest from other teams due to what he brings. The Players Player brings edge and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s been an unsung hero this year. Whatever he decides, good luck to him.

The Rangers know what Brett Howden is. Even though he’s never followed up his rookie year with consistent offense, the hard work he puts in make him a solid player. The thing is he’s the best face-off guy the team has. Only he’s played a lot of left wing due to the strong play from Kevin Rooney. It’s not about numbers with Howden. He provides the intangibles by sacrificing for the team. Whether with a good check or key block, he’s always willing to get dirty. I have changed my mind. I would keep him because of the North/South mindset he has. With Barron ready to play, we’ll get a look at him. I see nothing wrong with having both on the roster entering next season.

When it comes to the youth movement, there’s a lot to like. At this point, I expect Julien Gauthier to wind up with the Seattle Kraken in the Expansion Draft. It would be best for his career. He looks like the odd man out. That’s too bad. They can’t keep everyone. The question is what other moves will the team make in the off-season. That will be the focus in a future piece as the season winds down.

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Derek Felix

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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