Improvement of young Blueshirts a key to second half, Lafreniere struggles continue, Kreider back to face league best Bruins

A few hours leading up to what amounts to a big game at 33rd and 7th when the Rangers host the league-leading Bruins in a battle of Original Six with plenty of history, let’s look into a few young Blueshirts who have improved their play.

The plus side for the Rangers, who enter tonight’s home match sitting third in the Metro Division with 57 points, has been the play of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and K’Andre Miller. All three have taken steps in the right direction to help contribute in wins. The growth of each is encouraging for the team’s present and future. They’re all 23 and under.

Let’s start with Chytil. In his fifth season, the former ’17 first round pick (21st) has been able to play more consistently. Although he has missed some time due to injuries which is why some refer to him as Filip Brittle, the 23-year old center has been a key secondary scorer the team cab rely on.

With a primary assist that set up Vitaly Kravtsov for his first goal in 12 games during a good bounce back win at the Blue Jackets, it gave Chytil a new career high in points with 24. His previous best was 23 which he has in both ’18-19 and ’19-20. The injury bug didn’t help him the past two seasons where he went an identical 8-14-22 with that same total in 67 games during ’21-22 leaving much to be desired.

However, the turning point came during the playoffs. It was there that a more focused Chytil showed maturity and newfound grit as he scored seven goals and added two assists all while centering Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko on the third line. They were instrumental in helping the team get past the first two rounds and nearly by the Lightning.

In 37 contests this season with his contract up, Chytil has continued to emerge as a younger leader. He’s backed it up by scoring 12 goals with 12 assists for 24 points and a plus-10 rating. While 20 points have come at even strength which has aided a team that sometimes struggles at five-on-five, he’s also contributed on the power play. His three power play goals lead the little used second unit that’s shown improvement. Hopefully, they’ll earn more ice time in the second half.

With Chytil evolving into a reliable player who has a shot at cracking 20 goals and over 40 points barring something unforeseen, there’s also been the growth of Kakko. The former ’19 second pick has shown more confidence with the puck during extended shifts. Although it hasn’t always led to consistent production as his nine goals and 11 assists would indicate, the 21-year old who turns 22 next month is much more noticeable on the forecheck.

It’s the size and strength along with puck protection that’s allowed Kakko to become more effective on the cycle. He’s able to skate in and out of traffic more and find room to either shoot or pass the puck. A bit unselfish, the puck possession hound can certainly think shot more and increase his goal production. He creates enough chances. On track for new personal bests across the board, the right wing is headed in the right direction.

With a pair of helpers on Monday night including a nice lead pass that allowed Mika Zibanejad to score his team-leading 20th versus Columbus, we’re seeing a more confident player who is starting to get it. He also picked up a secondary helper on Barclay Goodrow’s first career power play goal. A nifty redirect of a K’Andre Miller point shot.

Speaking of which, Miller is having his best stretch so far. The assist on the Goodrow tally allowed him to join an exclusive list of Blueshirts who recorded points in seven straight games as a defenseman before turning 23. Per NYRStatsInfo, that list includes Rangers legend Brian Leetch and former Ranger Neal Pionk over the past 35 years.

Had they backtracked a bit further, that small list also includes Ron Greschner. At 22 during ’76-77, the defenseman had a seven-game point streak between March 10 thru 23 in 1977. He recorded three goals and five assists for eight points.

Considering that he was a very good Ranger, Greschner definitely deserves a mention. He spent his entire 16-year career on Broadway. One of the most productive defensemen in franchise history which dates back to 1926, Greschner registered 179 goals with 431 assists for a total of 610 points in 981 games.

He helped the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 1979. At only 24, he had seven goals and five assists in 18 games during that run. Ultimately, they lost in five games to the Canadiens. Greschner went 17-32-49 over 84 career playoff games. His final season was ’89-90 when he retired.

With the 22-year old Miller joining that list with three goals and six assists for nine points over the past seven games, the smooth skating defenseman has already established personal bests in assists (20) and points (25). Twenty of the twenty-five have come at even strength. Another three via the power play where coach Gerard Gallant has finally given him some shifts on the second unit. The other two points came shorthanded which illustrates the confidence he has with the puck in transition.

A key part of the second pair teamed alongside the harder hitting and grittier Jacob Trouba, he works well with the Rangers captain. Although there have been more peaks and valleys in his third season while mostly paired with Trouba, he’s asked to do a lot by the coaching staff that includes assistant Gord Murphy, who handles the assignments.

In his third year, Miller has seen his role increase. Continuing to get tough match-ups at five-on-five while also playing penalty kill and now having contributed on the second power play where he should remain due to his skating and shot, he averages 22:15 per game. Undoubtedly, the former Wisconsin product who the club took with the 18th pick in the first round of 2018, understands the game. It’s not always easy.

There have been tough starts to games like one where he got burned twice along with Trouba. But was able to shake it off and get a game-winner on a deflection in a 5-3 come from behind victory over the Hurricanes on Jan. 3. Afterwards, he spoke about the bad first period and sticking with it. There was still time to turn it around.

It’s that kind of poise and maturity that make Miller unflappable. He has character. While he still isn’t consistent in his end, it’s a process of learning from mistakes and adjusting. One of the smartest moves of former GM Jeff Gorton was trading up with Ottawa to select Miller with the 22nd pick in 2018. It’s worked out a lot better for the Rangers than the Senators. Originally, the first round pick came from the Bruins in a blockbuster deal that’s been very good to the Blueshirts.

It’s hard to believe that Gorton was also able to land the overlooked Ryan Lindgren from Boston as part of the Rick Nash trade that also wound up turning Ryan Spooner into Ryan Strome, who was a good Ranger. The gritty and gutsy top pair defenseman who’s teamed up with Norris candidate Adam Fox to form a great tandem. Lindgren took a tough hit on a boarding call that could’ve been a major. Of course, the warrior returned.

That’s in line with who Lindgren is. The reincarnation of old number 5, Dan Girardi. The only difference is he wears double 5’s and is a lefty. When we think of Girardi, we’re reminded of some of the diving blocks he made during deep playoff runs that sent him hobbled to either the bench or locker room for repairs. Superman would always come back. It’s similar with Lindgren, who will do anything to get back in a game. He has the same hard-nosed mentality. Hockey player.

While the breathtaking Fox gets all the deserved ink for his artistry and brilliance in leading the Rangers with 45 points (9-36-45) from the back end while logging nearly 26 minutes a night, it’s rugged 24-year old partner Lindgren who plays like a Doberman. He will deliver the crunching hits and take a licking sacrificing for the cause.

Lindgren has also improved his skating. He makes good reads and knows when to jump in offensively. Although it’s not part of his job description, he’ll make a smart pinch and help the offense. His 13 assists are two shy of a previous career high established in ’20-21. He needs three more helpers to surpass that number and four points for a new personal best. A defensively responsible player, he’s plus-16 this season and plus-64 over his career.

It’s also worth pointing out that the continued steadiness of second-year defenseman Braden Schneider has helped supply the Rangers with three pairs they can trust. Although he and partner Ben Harpur don’t play as much, they’ve been a solid duo since being put together.

The strong skating and capability to jump into the play make Schneider a young player with promise. He’s already scored a career high five goals and added five helpers along with a plus-nine rating. He has 68 blocks and 66 hits with several reminding fans of Trouba. Nicknamed by teammates Baby Trouba, the former ’19 first round pick the team traded up for to steal away from the rival Devils has been worth it.

While it’s true there has been improvements made by the aforementioned young players, one player who isn’t included is Alexis Lafreniere. The former consensus top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft has struggled mightily in his third season. It’s been tough to watch.

After a strong finish to his second year where his 19 even strength goals ranked second best behind Chris Kreider, he also had an impact in the playoffs. Lafreniere scored twice and added seven assists for nine points. All while playing mostly with Chytil and Kakko on the effective forechecking third line. That looked like a springboard for a bigger third year.

Instead, he’s clearly struggled to score goals or be involved offensively. The crazy part is his 18 points (5-13-18) are two fewer than Kakko, who’s been more noticeable. If there’s a notable difference, it’s how he’s been handled. Unlike last season when he had a defined role on the former Kid Line, Lafreniere has been shuffled like a deck of cards. Gallant still hasn’t found the right combo for a young player with promise.

Going from playing his natural position to playing the off wing for a stretch with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck didn’t help. While the trio had success offensively, their lack of defensive awareness meant more goals against than scored. So, Gallant broke it up. He also tried Lafreniere with Zibanejad and Kreider on the right side. But it didn’t net positive results.

Lafreniere seems most comfortable playing the left wing which is where he should be. He has always had good chemistry with Chytil where he could line up tonight. But the lack of confidence is an issue. He is without a goal since Dec. 7. That’s a stretch of 16 games. It also included the first healthy scratch of his career. Over the 16 games, he has only five assists and 20 shots on goal. Not enough to generate quality chances needed to score.

Even in an increased role when Kreider was out due to a lower-body injury, Lafreniere couldn’t hit the score sheet while playing top line minutes with Zibanejad and Kakko. He also was used in the Kreider role on the top unit during the power play. He does go to the net and is good along the wall. But it hasn’t been clicking.

With five games remaining before the All-Star break, the Rangers face a hard question. What to do with their seemingly lost former first overall pick. If he doesn’t show improvement, wouldn’t it make sense for the organization to assign Lafreniere to Hartford for a stretch? He’s never played in the AHL. It wouldn’t be a punishment. It could provide a chance to stay sharp, get top minutes including on the power play, and boost his confidence.

The Kings have been patient with ’20 second pick Quinton Byfield. He spent time with the Ontario Reign as did former USA WJC standout Alex Turcotte. Byfield did well in the AHL and was recalled. He produced his best NHL game with a goal and assist on the top line during a Kings’ win. Sometimes, it’s a process. Byfield has only played 63 games for LA posting 6-11-17. He looks better since coming back up.

The main point of emphasis is that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the Rangers decided to send down Lafreniere. He’s clearly struggling mentally. That’s affected his game. I see a player who’s a step slower and not as decisive. The game is very fast. It should be more instinctive.

Tonight will be the 180th game of his NHL career. Lafreniere remains stuck on 36 goals with 34 assists totaling 70 points. Of course, there’s been criticism from frustrated fans who don’t have any patience. They don’t understand that he hasn’t been handled well in Year Three. Even for a young talented player with lofty expectations, it can be tough. The mental side of sports aren’t emphasized enough. At least we’re starting to see players be more open about the pressure.

At this moment, I’m not ready to throw in the towel on a 21-year old player who is capable of much more. It’s about rebuilding his confidence. If that means letting him build back up for some games in Hartford which can make him a better player, I’m for it.

The real question is will the Rangers organization even consider it. They’re known for using young players like props to get fans’ hopes up. Why else did Kakko stay up during his rookie season when he was completely lost? For one reason. Public Relations. That’s the Dolan philosophy. It’s been harming player development for a long time. Or do the names Malhotra and Lundmark not ring a bell?

This is a franchise that never won a draft lottery up until they lucked into Lafreniere following the uncompetitive preliminary round against the Hurricanes. A two-part system that benefited a lucky loser over a bad team that didn’t even qualify for the expanded 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Lucky loser has been used more in tennis when a player who lost in qualifying replaces an injured player during a grand slam. It applies to the unlikely 2020 Draft scenario that landed the Rangers the top pick.

Can Lafreniere still figure it out? Not without the right decision making. I get that Gallant is trying to win games. I also understand how delicate the situation is. They don’t want to mess up Lafreniere anymore. He has to be more proactive during shifts, aggressive and avoid bad penalties which have started to occur recently.

Look at Vitaly Kravtsov. He hadn’t scored in a dozen games until the other night. Playing on the third line with Chytil and Goodrow, he went to the net and got rewarded. Chytil found him with a superb pass that Kravtsov tipped in. It was only his third point during a tough stretch. He didn’t celebrate much on the goal. But rather pointed to Chytil for the pass and smiled.

It also happened to be arguably his best game so far. Kravtsov finished with a team high five shots and nearly scored again. When it comes to the development of young players, it’s all about how they respond. The 23-year old former ’18 first round pick was more aggressive and it paid off. Despite more impatience from fans who want to throw him away, Kravtsov has only played in 45 NHL games. He’s 5-5-10 including 3-3-6 in 25 in his first true season. That’s significantly less than Kakko or Lafreniere.

With rumors heating up regarding Timo Meier, how the heck can a team like the Rangers afford the Sharks forward? Meier is up at the end of the season as a restricted. He must be qualified at least $10 million. Given the cap issues they have, it’s unrealistic to add a player of Meier’s caliber. Between what it would cost in roster player(s), prospects and picks, along with the crazy salary, there’s no way they can do it.

It’s even more farfetched than Patrick Kane. I’m sure the Blackhawks wouldn’t ask for a combination starting with either Kakko or Lafreniere plus Brennan Othmann and a first round pick. Click. Not worth that potential steep price for a possible rental. There’s no guarantee even in a more mediocre league. The best teams all play in the Atlantic. That would be the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Lightning.

What about key decisions Team President and GM Chris Drury must make following the season? Namely Miller and Chytil. Lafreniere likely won’t cost much. But the other two could. Kravtsov is also a Group II. Lindgren, who makes $3 million, is up in 2024. That’s also restricted. Libor Hajek likely will be gone.

The only players who turn unrestricted are Sammy Blais ($1.525 million) and backup Jaroslav Halak ($1.5 million). Unless something creative happens, the Rangers won’t be able to do much this summer. That’s still a long way off. They can at least make an addition at the trade deadline due to freeing up space by unloading Ryan Reaves to Minnesota.

With Kreider returning after missing the past three games, that should help solidify a lineup that’s struggled to score at five-on-five. They only scored once there without the veteran power forward who ranks second behind Zibanejad with 19 goals. He definitely was missed both at even strength and on the top power play unit.

A good question for Gallant entering tonight’s big test against a Bruins team that’s only lost five times in regulation, is will he use power play two a little more. Lafreniere will be back on that unit. What about Miller, whose more capable of running it than Trouba?

It is Boston. It’s a good bet Gallant will lean on his top unit if they get power plays. The Bruins are an outstanding team at five-on-five. Their superior depth up front and on the blue line makes them very formidable. At 35-5-4, their 74 points lead the league. A dozen more than the Hurricanes and 13 clear of the Devils and Leafs.

Patrice Bergeron is a game-time decision. Although it would benefit our side, I’d prefer to see him play. I want a full Bruins roster for this big match-up. Bergeron also is one of the all-time great Bruins having eclipsed 1,000 points and played 1,260 games. He’s 16-19-35 this season. For his career all with Boston, Bergeron has 416 goals, 601 assists and 1,017 points to go with a plus-273. That’s why he’s considered one of the greatest two-way players.

Igor Shesterkin should be in net on one end. Linus Ullmark played last night in Boston’s 4-1 win over the Islanders. He’s a ridiculous 24-2-1 with a 1.88 GAA, .937 save percentage and two shutouts. It might be Jeremy Swayman. No picnic either, the second-year netminder is 10-3-3 with a 2.35 GAA, .912 save percentage and a shutout. He’s played much better lately.

It isn’t only about stopping David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. Pastrnak is fourth in scoring with 63 points including 35 goals (second behind McDavid) including 13 on the power play. His 217 shots lead the league. He’s gonna get paid. The Bruins are going to have to pay top dollar. That could be between $11.5 and 12 million.

What makes Boston so tough is they have David Krejci back centering the second line. That’s normally between Pavel Zacha (re-signed) and Pastrnak. But Jake DeBrusk is out. They also have Charlie Coyle centering a good third line. Plus Taylor Hall and secondary scorers Trent Frederic, Nick Foligno and Zacha.

The defense is well balanced. Anchored by Long Island native Charlie McAvoy and aided by Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Carlo and shot blocking machine Derek Forbort, they’re well equipped to both play strong defense and contribute offensively. Matt Grzelcyk is capable of offense while Connor Clifton is more defensive oriented.

Up and down the lineup, there aren’t many weaknesses. For the Rangers to win, they’ll have to fare well at five-on-five. An area Boston excels at. That means not getting pinned in for stretches. Smart concise passes and smooth exits that lead to attack time. They have to carry the play and win the neutral zone. Face-offs will be tough. But if Bergeron is out, that can only help. Remaining disciplined is another key due to the precision passing of the Bruins. Particularly Marchand and Pastrnak.

Special teams always are essential. Unless it’s mostly played at full strength, there will be some penalties. That means power plays and penalty kills. The Rangers need to be sharp in this area.

Obviously, getting bodies to the front no matter who’s in net will help the cause. Boston has some big defensemen. The Blueshirts will have to make life difficult. Get dirty. Don’t get sucked into any undisciplined penalties by Marchand, Foligno or Frederic. The Bruins are gritty and tough.

If we really want to get a good idea of where this team is after having played much better since Trouba’s blowup during the ugly loss against the Blackhawks which was the low point, this is as good an opportunity as any to find out who they are. They’ve had good wins over quality opponents like the Stars (Miller’s Miracle) Devils (Chytil in OT), Golden Knights, Avalanche (though shorthanded), Lightning (split with the second needing extras), Leafs (ended their streak) and Hurricanes (big third period).

The Bruins are the measuring stick. That’s how impressive they are under Jack Adams frontrunner Jim Montgomery. Good for him on finally getting a second chance after a struggle off the ice with alcohol. They’re the team to beat right now. The Rangers already lost once at MSG 5-2 back on Nov. 3. That was then. They’ve improved. The final meeting is March 4 in Boston after the March 3 trade deadline.

Well. It should be a good one. Hopefully, a lot better than two months ago.


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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