NEW YORK – It’s a common theme for every team every training camp: Competition for jobs.
Often, that’s just wishful thinking.
For the deeper (not to mention faster) Rangers, it’s for real, especially among the “bottom” four forward positions.
When you look at it, barring a trade or injury, the top eight are pretty much set: Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey. Throw Jesper Fast in that group as well, and we all know that coach Alain Vigneault thinks of Fast as a guy who can play on any line, one through four.
After that is a cast of thousands, including injured Oscar Lindberg, who hopes to return from hip surgery in November: rookie Pavel Buchnevich, Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris, Nathan Gerbe, Tanner Glass, tryout Max Lapierre, Mark Hrivik, a bunch of prospects who are probably headed for Hartford no matter what, and the team’s most recent addition, Brandon Pirri.
Grabner, Fast. Lindberg, Gerbe, Glass, Lapierre, Hrivik can all play a prototypical fourth-line game, which is to get in on the forecheck, be good defensively, and kill penalties.
Pirri and Buchnevich do not fit that identity. Long story short, it appears in this early going that Pirri and Buchnevich are vying for the same, and only available spot on one of the top three lines. So both were in the lineup, on the same line, for a second straight preseason game against the Devils Thursday, Buchnevich away from his training camp linemates Zibanejad and Kreider, Pirri moving from the wing to get Vigneault a look at him as a center. Vigneault said that Pirri is suited for a top-nine role, or if not that, as a 13th forward.
Thus this might be the most interesting of the job battles, and the most difficult of the decisions Vigneault and his staff will have to make.
Pirri scored a sniper’s goal in Tuesday’s win over the Islanders, and that’s what he does. He’s a skater who likes to fire it, and has a tremendous shot, but not a reputation as a player who is good away from the puck. Buchnevich, the 21-year-old top prospect, has tremendous skills, not a lot of strength, and his play away from the puck will be a big question until he proves otherwise.
It’s arguable whether Pirri, right now at 25 and on his fourth NHL team, is a more ready NHL player than the raw, but high ceiling of Buchnevich.
Pirri scored a sniper’s goal Tuesday against the Islanders.
“His shot, his goal, that was a major-league shot there,” Vigneault said. “A great release, and I liked what I saw from him. He seems like a real versatile player, which is a plus. He can play more than one position. I like his skill set and hopefully he will continue to show that.”
Vigneault also joked that it’s great that a player can play multiple positions, “as long as you can play any of those positions well.”
“That’s the type of player I am,” Pirri said. “There’s not a lot of room out there. It’s the NHL and things move fast. So if you’re thinking shoot-first there’s either a rebound or it’s going to go in or you’re going to create something.”
Vigneault compared his situation and opportunity to that of Benoit Pouliot, who had bounced around, came to the Rangers and had a big season, earning a long-term contract with Edmonton as a free agent. It’s getting close to a last opportunity for Pirri.
And a first for Buchnevich.
In addition to the Buchnevich-Pirri battle, the most intriguing thing to me tonight is the debut of Jimmy Vesey, who has played — and played well throughout camp — with the highly motivated Rick Nash and Kevin Hayes, who did some serious training this summer and has lost 10-15 pounds.
Tonight’s probable lineup:
Jimmy Vesey-Kevin Hayes-Rick Nash
Nathan Gerbe-Brandon Pirri-Pavel Buchnevich
Michael Grabner-Marek Hrivik-Jesper Fast
Adam Tambellini-Max Lapierre-Nicklas Jensen
Nick Holden-Kevin Klein
Ryan Graves-Chris Summers
John Gilmour-Dylan McIlrath
Photo by Andy Marlin/USA Today.