Nineteen years ago today, the parade in the Canyon of Heroes, and OJ’s slow-speed chase in the white Bronco.
As we wait for the official introduction of Alain Vigneault as the next Rangers coach—and I’m told that the delay is not because the NHL doesn’t want major news to break during the finals—here is a guest blog about the Rangers’ bottom six and how it might be re-constructed:
With the Stanley Cup Finals underway, Rangers fans are looking ahead to not only the new coach, but offseason trades and signings which will begin in a few weeks shortly before the June 30 NHL Draft in Newark.
Names such as Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, resigning the banged up Ryan Clowe (which will cost a second-round pick in 2014), or looking to add Matt Hendricks (and his eight points) on a multiyear deal to complement Brian Boyle (and his five points) have been discussed in news articles ever since the Rangers were eliminated right before Memorial Day, but the solution to salary cap, depth, and scoring issues might be closer to home then any expensive unrestricted free agent.
Too many times under the tenure of John Tortorella, bottom six players specifically the fourth line were grinders, enforcers, and AHL journeymen (Donald Brashear, Kris Newbury, an aging Mike Rupp come to mind) who saw less than five minutes of ice time and were not used in the third period, overtime, or special teams. This put a tremendous amount of pressure on the top nine to score, and would ultimately tire these players. It’s pretty simple math; a team with 12 forwards who can contribute has better odds of winning a game and especially a playoff series than a team with only nine forwards who can contribute.
The Rangers lost the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals partly because the Devils fourth line produced, while their fourth line did not. The same can be said for this year’s series against the Bruins as Gregory Campbell scored two game winning goals.
Just because a player or line is playing bottom six minutes, does not mean they have to possess limited hockey skill or be solely a grinder or enforcer. They also do not have to be veterans. It’s up to a coach to utilize a player’s strength and skill, while providing them enough minutes and opportunities to learn, contribute, and succeed. This will prepare them for playing more minutes in case of injuries, or in later years when they will have to replace departing top six players. Pierre Larouche, famous to Rangers fans later in his career, was a young fourth line power play specialist on Scotty Bowman’s 1979 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadians. Rookie Tyler Seguin was bounced all around the lineup during the 2011 Boston Bruins Cup run. The fourth line of Brad Richardson, Colin Frasier, and Jordan Nolan, in addition to neophyte Dwight King, were sparkplugs that helped the Los Angeles Kings win last year’s Stanley Cup. To a lesser extent, remember how successfully and opportunistically Tom Renney employed his third line of youngsters Nigel Dawes, Ryan Callahan, and veteran Chris Drury against the Devils in the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals?
The argument can be made that a younger player should play 20-plus minutes in the American Hockey League in all situations. But if a younger player possesses a particular set of skills and can help a parent club on the penalty kill, win faceoffs, or be used on a power play, the benefits these players offer may outweigh any bumps or warts. On a Rangers team that will be very close to the salary cap limit where two of its top six wingers (Callahan and Hagelin) may miss most of training camp and even the beginning of the season, and with the new playoff format and a greater chance of missing the postseason, more players will be needed to contribute and play important minutes.
So who are the candidates? Unless Chris Kreider spends the offseason on a McDonalds and Burger King diet, he will be on the roster, and most likely starting, but not limited to a top six role. J.T. Miller with his 26 games of NHL experience and full year as a pro, along with his ability to play center or wing, will surely get a crack out of training camp. Other second-year pros such as Christian Thomas, Marek Hrivik, and Andrew Yogan could get a look and each offer their own unique attributes, but it will be Swedish Elite League imports Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast who could help the Rangers completely restructure their bottom six.
Lindberg, who has played against pros the last few years in Sweden, can use his ability on faceoffs, penalty killing, and passing to form a partnership with Boyle and Miller to co-center the third and fourth lines depending on who is playing the best, with the other helping out along the boards. Lindberg’s ability to win faceoffs and being a natural center, give him an inside track to make the Rangers out of training camp.
Fast is probably the biggest wild card in the Rangers system. He can skate, score, and has grit. He has a nose for the net, and can potentially help the Rangers power play. The biggest question is can he add enough muscle and avoid getting banged up as he did in his three years in Sweden, and as seen in his one-game AHL cameo where he scored a goal and re-sprained his knee, originally hurt in the SEL playoffs. If he can stay healthy, he has the greatest chance to make the roster, and start on the lower lines preferably as a third line right winger. He’ll have to earn the new coach’s trust, but there’s no reason that he can’t eventually be given the opportunity to be Rick Nash’s sidekick, or ride shotgun to Derick Brassard. This can lead to the promotion of yet another youngster or push someone else further down the lineup creating more depth and competition for playing time on the wings.
While having two to four young players on the lower lines can be viewed as dangerous because of the lack of experience, it may be in the Rangers best interest to go this route based on the salary cap and injury issues this team faces to begin the 2013-14 campaign. No one knows if Marc Staal will be ready for training camp and Anton Stralman’s facial and shoulder injuries may cause him to miss a large portion of offseason training.
If the organization chooses to allow youngsters to mostly fill the bottom two lines, it will allow them to sign depth free agents on defense, possibly another top six scorer, and work on trading some of the current bottom six players for additional late round draft picks to at least gain back some of the damage done in trading the first and second rounders for Nash and Clowe.
Sometimes experience is overrated, and in a salary cap era, it might be better to rent a veteran grinder at the deadline, than to sign him to a multiyear deal and be stuck with an immovable, underperforming player.
Photo by Getty Images.