Kravtsov focused on moving forward, Rangers, Gallant pleased with Hunt, Blais to get first crack on top line, Vesey off to good start


Training camp officially opened last Wednesday. The Rangers enter camp with higher expectations. Unlike last year when returning to the postseason was the goal which they more than exceeded in reaching the Conference Finals, it’s Cup or bust in Manhattan.

Undoubtedly, there’ll be a lot of pressure. The team won’t sneak up on the competition in ’22-23. They’ll get everyone’s best game. That’s the price of raising the stakes. Or as good friend Robert Kraze Davis and I like to say, “Raise the steaks.” That’s an inside joke on the Yankees and NYY Steak.

Entering the new season, the Rangers are 20 to 1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. If you’re a gambling person, that might be a good play. That’s +2000. I also did see +1800 on oddsshark.com. Either way, you can’t tell me they are less likely to win it all than the media darling Penguins or Maple Leafs. What exactly have the Leafs proven? Have they seen their goalies?

I don’t get too wound up over the odds makers. I’m not a betting man. But the Rangers at +1800 or +2000 is tempting. However, we know none of that matters. It’s about what happens on the ice.

A lot can change over the course of an 82-game season. There will be injuries and man games lost. Plus whatever happens at the trade deadline. It’s first about making the big dance. Then, chasing the Cup. Every team wants to unless you’re the Blackhawks or Coyotes.

Despite subtracting key players Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte, Justin Braun and Alex Georgiev, there is enough talent and depth for the Blueshirts to win the Metropolitan Division and make a deep run in the postseason. Perhaps even take the next step and play for the Cup.

With the salary cap limiting what he could do, Team President and GM Chris Drury replaced Strome with Vincent Trocheck. A solid two-way center who will play with Artemi Panarin on the second line. What’s more? Trocheck can kill penalties. He was quite good at it playing for the Hurricanes.

Rather than bring back the valuable Motte in a fourth line, checking role, Drury opted to sign Ryan Carpenter and give Jimmy Vesey a pro tryout. So far, Vesey has come out with something to prove. A player who began his NHL career on Broadway, he’s appreciative of a second chance. In their first two preseason games, Vesey has a goal and two assists. His hustle has been noticeable. Based on that start, he has the inside track to earning a spot. The fourth line is a possibility.

Unable to replace Braun, who went back to the Flyers to play for John Tortorella, Drury is banking on Zac Jones and Matthew Robertson to impress the coaching staff enough to win the job on the left third pair. Jones scored in a 4-1 win over the Islanders. Robertson looked okay in last night’s game at Boston. There’s also Libor Hajek as insurance. It’s his last chance to prove he belongs.

While both Strome and Vatrano went to an intriguing Ducks, who boast promising young talent in Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Mason McTavish and Jamie Drysdale, the Rangers are banking on Sammy Blais to return to form. Thus far, Gerard Gallant has been pleased with him.

Blais is coming back from ACL reconstructive surgery due to the P.K. Subban trip that ended his ’21-22 last November. Turk likes what he brings. He’s a strong complementary forward who plays with edge. Gallant wants to try him up with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. We’ll see if that combination actually comes to fruition.

I’m skeptical on having Blais play top line. I realize Gallant tried him there last year with some decent results before the injury. But Blais isn’t a top line guy. However, he will create space with his aggressive mindset and take the body. He’s also able to takeaway pucks that lead to more possession time. Obviously, it’s an important season for him. He’s signed through ’22-23 and can turn unrestricted next summer. I’m rooting for him.

One player I believe can make the adjustment to play the right side on the top line is Alexis Lafreniere. The top pick in 2020 is a natural left wing. That’s why he found himself playing with Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko on the third line during the playoffs. The chemistry they had was instrumental in helping the team advance to the Eastern Conference Final. Early indications is Gallant would like to have that cohesive trio intact to begin the season.

However, anyone who’s watched Lafreniere knows he would be better suited playing a bigger role. The dogged ness with which he plays with and obvious skill make him a good fit for the first line. While many pundits question if he can play the right side, he showed enough in his stint with Zibanejad and Kreider to make a believer in me. He plays with grit and will finish checks. A good passer who also possesses a strong shot, I believe Lafreniere will wind up there during the season.

In terms of the key battle for the opening on the right side to join Panarin and Trocheck, it’s still too early to conclude what will transpire. Gallant indicated early that he would like to see Vitaly Kravtsov on that second line where he can play opposite his Russian comrade Panarin. In a revealing interview last week, the 22-year old Kravtsov wants to move forward. Probably a wise decision on his part after last year’s disappointment that saw him pack his bags and go home after not reporting to Hartford.

The main takeaway is that Kravtsov is focused on doing what he needs to do to earn a stay as a regular. Although he didn’t have a standout preseason debut, the former 2018 first round pick was better last night against Boston. His skating and ability to come back defensively demonstrate a player committed to playing both ends. One such play saw him win a board battle and then lead Jonny Brodzinski for a breakaway. His shot rang off the goalpost. It was an excellent read.

Kravtsov also got first power play time with Lafreniere, Trocheck, Vesey and Adam Fox. He looked to use his teammates on a couple of looks. The right wing also tested Jeremy Swayman with a shot. His best chance came at even strength when he took the puck hard to the net and forced Swayman into a good low save. That’s the kind of aggressive mindset he must have to succeed.

While Vesey got the royal treatment playing with Trocheck and Lafreniere, Kravtsov worked with Brodzinski and Turner Elson. In the latter part of the game, I thought Kravtsov created some opportunities for his line. If Gallant wants him to earn it, there’s nothing wrong with seeing how he looks with plumbers.

There’s a preconceived notion from fans that Kravtsov is being handed a spot and has a bad attitude. I can’t say for certain about the first point. Other than after what happened last year, it wasn’t exactly an ideal situation. However, I don’t see this attitude crap. They’ve shown him on the bench all smiles including a nice pat on the back for Lafreniere after his goal. He’s been communicating with teammates. That’s positive.

There is one thing I’d like to point out. Not every player has the skating and skills to play on the top two lines. While you can stick Vesey up with top tier talent, it won’t last long. If they need that energy, Gallant can make the line tweaks in game. Something we’ve seen from him. Especially when it isn’t working.

Kaapo Kakko is the other young player who could compete for that open spot on the Panarin line. The Rangers are still waiting for the young Finn to deliver on his promise. Selected second behind Jack Hughes in 2019, the 21-year old Kakko has yet to prove he can become the consistent scoring threat many experts had him pegged for.

Injuries and inconsistency have hurt Kakko in his three seasons. Although there has been improvement overall, you’d like to see him score more. His best output remains 10-13-23 in his rookie year. He went 9-8-17 in ’20-21 during the abbreviated schedule. Then 7-11-18 in 43 contests last season. It’s been the passing that’s been more noticeable than the shot.

Kakko doesn’t get off many shots. He’s a strong puck possession player who excels on the walls. He did some good work in the playoffs while teaming with Lafreniere and Chytil. He went 2-3-5 in the postseason. It was Chytil who finished most plays winding up with seven goals. Lafreniere had nine points including seven assists. He supplied the grunt work.

If Gallant decides to start the year with the First Round Pick Line, it’s due to the chemistry they have. Maybe he feels more comfortable keeping that young trio intact. At some point, it’ll change.

If Kakko can’t get off that line, it might be due to the organization preferring Kravtsov to play opposite Panarin. There were indications during last season that the Bread Man wasn’t a huge fan of Kakko. That was probably due to his many passes across not getting put away. It’s why Gallant even tried Dryden Hunt. A hard-working physical player who only scored six goals. He was miscast until Drury swung the deal for Copp. He was a great fit. Now, he’ll try to help hometown team Detroit get back to the playoffs.

There’s also one other young option to consider. Brennan Othmann was impressive in his first preseason action the other night. The 2021 first round pick recorded two assists against the Islanders. One such primary helper was off a two-on-one rush for a beautiful shorthanded goal by K’Andre Miller.

Only 19, Othmann is a kid to watch. He possesses the speed and isn’t shy about mixing it up. A number 16 pick in ’21, all he did was go for 50 goals and 47 assists totaling 97 points for the Flint Firebirds last season. After a strong postseason where he put up 24 points (9-15-24), he fared well helping Canada win the gold medal at the rescheduled U20 WJC. He went 2-4-6.

There’s a lot to like about Othmann. He’s very focused. A determined player who wants to make the roster even with not many spots available, another strong showing would make it tough for the Rangers to send him back to Flint. It just might be that he does enough to get the maximum nine games before they can opt him to the OHL. He doesn’t turn 20 until January 5 next year. Keep that in mind.

Another prospect who is looking to crack the roster is Will Cuylle. Having also had success with Canada in their gold medal victory, the 20-year old 2020 second round pick performed admirably by finishing with two goals and two helpers during the tournament.

A forward who plays with edge, Cuylle had a big ’21-22 with the Windsor Spitfires. In 59 games, he had 43 goals with 37 assists for 80 points. Even better, Cuylle was splendid in leading the Spitfires to the Memorial Cup Final. He produced 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points over 25 games. They fell just short of winning it, losing in seven to the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Considering that the Rangers already boast Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves, Cuylle has his work cut out for him. Especially when battling Ryan Carpenter, who they signed to fill a void on the checking line. He wins draws and can kill penalties. Considering that there’s also players like Hunt and Vesey, who looks like he’ll get a contract, it looks like the Rangers would be better off letting Cuylle develop at Hartford in his first pro season.

I would be surprised if Cuylle makes the roster. I’m sure he’ll get another look. Maybe even tomorrow against the Devils. But it feels like Cuylle is ticketed for the Wolf Pack. Not exactly a bad thing considering where he’d be on the depth chart. Let him get top minutes in Hartford.

The Blueshirts are also taking a look at Gustav Rydahl and Bobby Trivigno. While I admittedly don’t know much about Rydahl, who they signed out of Sweden where he was a late bloomer, I’ve heard of Trivigno. A 23-year old classic overachiever who everyone roots for.

Trivigno is that undersized kid that nobody gives much of a chance. He wasn’t drafted. Listed at 5-8, 152 pounds, he looks like a midget going up against much bigger competition. I mean that in the most sincere way possible. One thing we know about small players. What they lack in size they more than make up for in heart.

Trivigno was signed by the Rangers last Sping after completing his senior year with UMass-Amherst. He paced them in goals (20), assists (29) and points (49). He’s also a local kid from Setauket, NY. So, you know he’d got a cheering section.

While I certainly noticed him in taking in Tuesday night’s exhibition, he sure is small. Like most that size, he hustles. Whatever happens with Trivigno, I wish him all the best. He deserves it.

Another defenseman who played yesterday was Hunter Skinner. The 2019 fourth round pick fell down on one play that nearly resulted in a Bruins goal. They hit the post. Then, former Bruin Jarred Tinordi did enough to help Louis Domingue keep the puck out. Domingue is the third string goalie behind Jaro Halak and Igor Shestyorkin. Halak looked sharp in his first action. Domingue was fine in relief. Not much chance on either goal.

Finally, Julien Gauthier is still hoping to stick. On a one-year deal, he either will do enough to make the roster or pass through waivers if nobody claims him. I noticed that he changed his number from 15 to 12. He still hustles and creates chances. He just doesn’t finish them. He had an active game with four shots and one penalty drawn. But if Vesey is getting a spot, that’s one less opportunity for Gauthier.

I think Gauthier needs a change of scenery. He’s never going to get a real look in NYC. He has had chances. But like the breakaways he butchers, they’re winding down. Maybe he can wind up on a Seattle or one of the bottom feeders chasing Bedard.

That’ll do it for this third post of the new season. In the next one, I’ll bring up someone I feel has been overlooked by the PWHA for the Hall Of Fame. It’ll be a surprise to most. Not anyone you’d think. But someone who I feel is deserving.

Plus more on the next batch of exhibitions. See you soon.

Derek

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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