I doubt that any team has ever been as stacked on the left side as the dynastic Islanders, who would throw out Clark Gillies, John Tonelli and Bob Bourne one after another after another. Not even
I doubt that any team has ever been as stacked on the left side as the dynastic Islanders, who would throw out Clark Gillies, John Tonelli and Bob Bourne one after another after another. Not even AOC’s Squad could match that left-wing firepower.
But I’ll tell you what. The Rangers have a chance to be as formidable on the left as any team in the NHL, and if not necessarily this year, then over the next three, four, five seasons. That’s the expectation/projection when you can line up with Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafreniere on that side.
But will David Quinn’s Blueshirts line up that way? Will the Rangers stack their left wings or will they flip one to the right in order to create their most formidable top six and move Lafreniere into the top six?
If they do bulk up at the top, moving Kreider to the right is the most logical move, even if it would take some time for No. 20 to adapt to playing the wrong wing, and especially on plays and battles on the boards in the defensive zone.
The Rangers don’t want to force feed the 19-year-old Lafreniere, who finally made it to New York and the club’s training facility in Greenburgh on Monday, into situations for which he might not be ready. Think: Kaapo Kakko, though what you almost assuredly do not remember is that the 2019 second-overall draft selection was in the top six for seven of the club’s first nine games last year before playing himself out of the assignment.
There’s always a danger in giving a rookie too much too soon and expecting a high-profile youngster to lead his team out of misery. These, though, are different circumstances. This time, the first-overall pick did not go to a ne’er-do-well, though the Rangers (thankfully, in retrospect) didn’t do nearly well enough to make it out of the qualifiers to the playoffs.
The Blueshirts aren’t counting on Lafreniere to lead them. He does not automatically become the best or most important player on the team the way that, say, Jack Eichel was from Day 1 in Buffalo, or John Tavares was way back when on the Island. The Rangers have Panarin. The Rangers have Mika Zibanejad.
Doesn’t it make more sense for Lafreniere to play on Zibanejad’s left, where he would operate under some cover next to one of the NHL’s elite centers, rather than on the third line with Filip Chytil, who at age 21 — still only 21 — is attempting to establish himself in the league? Not only do I want Lafreniere to hit the ground running, his exceptional playmaking ability naturally complements Zibanejad’s shoot-first mentality.
For the last couple of months, I have been envisioning a Lafreniere-Zibanejad-Kreider 1A Line with Panarin-Ryan Strome-Kakko or Pavel Buchnevich as the 1B unit. Yes, I would like Chytil to get a shot with Panarin, but it’s not likely that the Rangers are spending $4.5 million this season on Strome simply for him to act as a safety net.
Plus, Panarin has already lost his right wing, Jesper Fast, to Carolina via free agency, so sequestering him from the center with whom he combined for a career year might not be the most prudent way to go.
So that would mean Chytil on Line 3 with Kakko or Buchnevich — well, hopefully not Kakko, with whom No. 72 combined to post some of the most horrific analytics imaginable last year, the two on for five goals for and 18 against in 290:49 of five-on-five time, per Natural Stat Trick — on the right and a player to be named later on the left. Maybe Brett Howden. Maybe Brendan Lemieux. Maybe Morgan Barron. Maybe Steve Vickers.
That was the best way I could think of to move Lafreniere into the top six, even if it would make the third line a bit of a dog’s breakfast and would pretty much solidify the Rangers as the top-heaviest team in the league.
Except what if the Rangers do stack their left wings but move Kreider rather than Lafreniere to Chytil’s left on the third line? Kreider is entering the first season of his seven-year extension. Minutes, stats and personal success have become divorced from his NHL earning power. If Kreider gets fewer minutes than accustomed — he was fourth among New York forwards last year with 17:15 per, but only sixth at five-on-five at 13:45 — it won’t impact his next contract.
But, in theory, it would give the Rangers a start to a credible third unit, with an established power winger to ride with Chytil. Who on the right? That’s kind of where Fast should be, no? That spot is open, maybe to be taken by Julien Gauthier, maybe contested by Lemieux if he can switch wings.
Kreider and Chytil have a head start, too. Last year, in 203:46 at five-on-five, the lads combined for a 50.9 Corsi, a 54.15 shot share, and a sparkling plus-10 while on the ice for 15 goals for and five against. Not too bad.
If the partnership is revived and is even close to as successful, the Rangers will be stacked.