The competition for the spot on the left side of the third defense pair will be a major focus when the Eastern Conference finalist Rangers hit the ice on Thursday for the first day of training camp. Barring a late veteran addition either by tryout or via waivers, the role figures to come down to Libor Hajek, Zac Jones or Matt Robertson.
But I am also keenly interested in how the Blueshirts aim to fill the right wing on the Mika Zibanejad-Chris Kreider first-line connection in the wake of Frank Vatrano’s free-agent exit to Anaheim.
I kind of doubt Gerard Gallant intends to keep the Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko Kid Line intact, even though that would be my preference. Heck, the head coach broke them up for the elimination Game 6 against Tampa Bay in order to shoehorn Dryden Hunt — a healthy scratch for the previous 16 contests — into the lineup.
Hence, chances are that Lafreniere, whose 25 games up with Zibanejad and Kreider last season were the most of any winger, will get the first crack at the plum assignment. Yes, it will mean a permanent switch to his off-wing for the lefty shooter who will turn 21 on Oct. 11, the day the season opens against the Lightning at the Garden, but it seems to me that the issue has been way overblown.
Players switch sides all the time. It should not be a deal-breaker. If somehow it becomes an issue, then the 2020 first-overall pick will remain a third-line left wing for as long as Kreider and Artemi Panarin remain on the club.
Gallant has shown he’s open to experimenting with Zibanejad-Kreider line. In addition to Lafreniere’s 25 games, Kakko got 23 cracks at it. And then Vatrano, acquired five days ahead of the deadline from Florida for the bargain price of a fourth-rounder, hooked up with Nos. 93 and 20 for 17 regular-season games and 18 playoff contests.
You probably don’t recall this, because I didn’t until I checked my notes, but Gallant broke up Zibanejad and Kreider for Game 6 in Tampa. Lafreniere opened on the left with Zibanejad and Vatrano while Kreider slid to the third unit with Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. Combinations later went through a blender when Ryan Strome’s pelvis injury limited his ice time before forcing him out of the game after the second period.
But you surely remember how Gallant heralded the fact that Vatrano provided Zibanejad and Kreider with a shooter on their right side. The coach talked about it again and again. And the numbers bear him out, for on a team that ranked 30th in the NHL in five-on-five shots per game, Vatrano led the Rangers with 9.94 shots per 60 minutes among players who played in at least 10 matches.
Lafreniere clocked in at 5.53 per 60, ahead of only Goodrow’s 5.3, Kakko’s 5.16 and Sammy Blais’ 4.95. Blais’ season, of course, ended on Nov. 14 when he was cut down by the currently unemployed P.K. Subban.
Now, Lafreniere’s number was undoubtedly impacted by playing nearly half the year with Chytil, who is hardly a master dispatcher. But No. 13 is not a shoot-first, ask-questions-later player in the mold of Vatrano. Neither, obviously, is Kakko.
So if that is the quality the Rangers are seeking for that spot, Lafreniere is either going to have to change his game a bit, or the team may have to consider…who?
Vitali Kravtsov, Brennan Othmann or Will Cuylle? Not likely, though I’d be fascinated to see what Othmann (or Cuylle) might be able to do up there if given the opportunity. That would also necessitate each moving to the off-wing.
By the way, Blais played up on the top line for his final three games. And this, too, about No. 91: He never in 15 games played on the fourth line.
The hard reality of the cap
Tyler Motte, such a valuable fourth-line component during the playoffs, hit the open market over the summer seeking a multi-year contract befitting a top-nine forward, for upwards of $2.5 million per. That eliminated the Rangers from Day 1. You might have noticed that the other 31 teams in the league passed, as well. The flat cap and the CBA extension enabling it have cut players of Motte’s ilk off at the knees.
By the time the 27-year-old signed his one year, $1.35 million deal with Ottawa late last week, the Blueshirts were locked even if they had been given the opportunity to match it. The Rangers compute to have around $1 million in cap space with a 22-man roster that includes one extra forward and one spare defenseman.
No, they could not have swapped him in for Hunt ($762,500) and Julien Gauthier ($800,000) for the simple reason that Hunt/Gauthier will be an either/or proposition. Barring injury, they will not both be on the team. That is, if either makes it. Gauthier enters as the longest of long shots while Hunt will face competition from Jimmy Vesey, at camp on a PTO (professional tryout), for a spot.
Vesey’s edge is his ability to kill penalties. The Rangers lost three PK specialists to free agency in Copp, Motte and Kevin Rooney.
By the way, we have it on good authority that Motte’s camp never discussed the possibility of signing a one-year deal in the $1.35M price range with GM Chris Drury at any time and that talks ended early in the summer.
Next stop, Hartford?
Gustav Rhydal, the 28-year-old Swedish free-agent signee who may compete for the role as fourth-line center and/or 13th forward, does not require waivers to be assigned to the AHL Wolf Pack. We are told that he has expressed a willingness to go to Hartford, if necessary.
The Blueshirts signed veteran defenseman Matt Bartkowski to a PTO on Monday. The 34-year-old physical-oriented lefty has a total of 256 NHL games on his resume, but only three over the last three seasons while a member of the Minnesota and Pittsburgh organizations. Bartkowski spent the entirety of last season playing for AHL Wilkes-Barre.
If Hajek and Jones cannot outplay Bartkowski in camp in the competition for that spot on the left, something will be amiss.
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