Winger Chris Kreider is going into his first full season since turning 30 in April, having played 573 regular season games and 78 in the post season across his 10 year career to date. He's signed for another six years - including this one - and has a no move clause through to the 2023-24 season. The chances of him going anywhere soon are relatively low, though you can never seemingly rule anything out in this league.
He's also a significant reason why the Rangers elected to part ways with Pavel Buchnevich this Summer, with his $6.5M contract one of a number of factors that are putting the squeeze on the Rangers plans over the next couple of seasons.
Last year he put up 20 goals in 50 games, which translates out to around 33 goals. In fact, if it had been a full season at that rate, it would have marked the first one in which he'd broken the 30 goal mark. He also added an effective penalty kill role to his game, while maintaining his position on the left of Mika Zibanejad for most of the year.
Nine of those twenty goals came in a two week span on six games, from February 20th through to March 4th. It included a hattrick in a 4-3 loss to the Flyers, that began the streak, and ended with a second three goal night against the Devils in a 6-1 victory. In the other fourty four games last season, he scored just eleven goals, and that has been the story of Kreider's career - a streaky scorer who has difficulty maintaining the intensity over much of the season.
There are few in the league who can carry that kind of intensity for long periods, which is why Kreider is earning $6.5M and not $9 or $10M per season.
Over the past few years, Kreider and Mika Zibanejad have been a pair, with Pavel Buchnevich emerging as the right wing on the line over the past two shortened seasons. With Buchnevich departing, there's going to be changes on the top line, and it perhaps begs the question as to whether it makes sense to perservere with the pairing of Kreider and Zibanejad.
Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of keeping the pair together is that the Rangers are already looking at two young wingers in their top six, and a third would present a relatively unproven scoring lines to go with the weakening of the overall team offense with the departure of Buchnevich.
Even while Alexis Lafreniere looks the real deal in terms of a top line forward, he's going into just his second year having played a shortened 56 game schedule. Kaapo Kakko for his part is still finding his way and has not yet established any sort of chemistry with either of the top two lines.
The third option - Vitali Kravtsov - is the least proven of the three, and while he did bounce back last year in the KHL, there's still much to be proven in his game, and a slow start or a tail-off late in the season seem a good possibility as he faces his first full season in the NHL
Another option would be moving Filip Chytil to the wing again, though given the dearth of top line centers under contract beyond this season, that carries it's own risk, and may not best serve the Rangers going forward. While Chytil has plenty to prove himself, he's only 21 and has shown flashes of what he might be able to become, particularly early last season when he started the year as one of the better Ranger forwards.
So perhaps the best bet is to keep Kreider alongside Zibanejad.
Well, maybe that makes sense at the beginning of the year, but longer term perhaps he's a better fit on a newly constructed third line. During this offseaosn, Chris Drury has focused on making the Rangers harder to play against, most obviously with the addition of players like Ryan Reaves, Jarred Tinordi, Sammy Blais and Dryden Hunt. The foursome are all bottom line type players, but provide a physical edge that the team lacked last year.
Perhaps their biggest bet, is the addition of Cup winning center/wing Barclay Goodrow. Goodrow is a forechecking, defensive specialist who isn't afraid to mix it up. In Tampa he played on a line with Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, to form a two-way line that forechecked hard, defensively hard to play against and willing to mix it up if need be. As projected right now, Goodrow looks set to pair with Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov a line that looks a mismatch from the start.
Goodrow's effectiveness in his role is somewhat dependent on his line mates, and neither Kravtsov or Chytil seem like good options to get in quick and put pressure on the defense, nor are they likely to be defensively intimidating at this stage of their careers or with the way they play the games.
Adding Kreider to Goodrow would perhaps provide a better option, though there is likely going to be an impact on Kreider's offense, as his role would evolve somewhat. His size and speed, along with the defensive side of the game that he showed last year are perhaps better fits with Goodrow's game than other options.
Of course there's a number of other ways this could go too, and maybe the Rangers go more the route that the Islanders and Capitals have gone with using their fourth line and ultimately play Goodrow along the likes of Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves. Perhaps Morgan Barron has a strong camp and makes his case, or perhaps the Rangers make a trade that changes the make-up.
At this stage I think the odds are that Kreider starts on the top line to start the year, but perhaps it makes more sense for him to make the move later in the year if the younger wingers press their case for more offensive time.