2023 TRAINING CAMP - FORWARDS
FIRST LINE PROJECTION
The only thing I’m certain about here, is that Mika Zibanejad will center the top line, after that it’s all question marks. Is Alexis Lafreniere finally ready at the tender age of 21 to take on a bigger role? Does Blake Wheeler have enough left at 37, and can he find any chemistry with his new linemates? There’s a good chance that one, or even both of those questions prove out to be a resounding “NO!”, but for the moment stick with me.
Only Chris Kreider has more goals per 60 minutes over the past two seasons, than Lafreniere’s 0.87. And while Kreider’s had a couple of strong years offensively, a good part – particularly in 2021-22 – was due to his time on the PP, an opportunity that has largely been out of reach for the young Canadian. With Laviolette expected to take a more balanced approach to the man advantage, it wouldn’t come as a shock to see Kreider’s production drop off and perhaps a bit of a bump for Lafreniere.
There’s also logic to using Kreider in more of a two-way role on a newly constructed third line – more on that below – which would then open up a spot on the top line. Alternatively, they could try out Artemi Panarin again, though putting the team’s top two point-scorers on the same line does lessen the depth of the line-up a little, making the team easier to defend against.
Perhaps Kaapo Kakko has a better shot at top line duties, and it might be worth trying out the combo above. Kakko had some success playing with Zibanejad in the past, albeit with Kreider on the other side. There certainly is a leap of faith in putting both Lafreniere and Kakko on a line with the Rangers best offensive center, but if it works, then the team suddenly looks a lot deeper. Alternatively Laviolette could try the veteran Wheeler here, or even go with a full veteran line-up of Kreider-Zibanejad-Wheeler as a topline.
I’m holding out hope that the top line configuration works and gives the Rangers a few more options to work with.
SECOND LINE PROJECTION
After losing his preferred centerman last Summer, Panarin saw his production taper off a little last year as he didn’t quite gel with newcomer Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck’s straight ahead game and preference to shoot, didn’t seem to mesh as well with Panarin’s preference to hold onto the puck and look for space. While the two did have their moments together, the expectation is that the Rangers will look to try something different this year.
Step right up Filip Chytil. The 24 year old registered 45 points last season, and finally appears to be figuring out his game. Chytil last year showed more confidence with the puck, and for the first time did a better job of using his size to create offense. The Chytil-Panarin experiment has failed before, though that was largely before last season’s breakout. Could now be the time?
Rounding out the line is 37 year old Blake Wheeler. I don’t love this combination, it feels too much like a line constructed of pieces that didn’t fit anywhere else. Is Wheeler still good enough to play top six minutes, can Chytil step up and play in a role he’s struggled with in the past, and can Panarin figure out how to work with these two.
THIRD LINE PROJECTION
Peter Laviolette comes into his first camp as head of the Rangers bench, with the goal of building a contender from this line-up. Part of the plan will be constructing a bottom six that can take away offensive opportunities from their opponents, and in turn generating offense of their own. The line only works if the Rangers manage to get production out of the top six, but if they do, then this line makes a lot of sense.
Kreider has added more of a defensive conscience to his game over the last couple of seasons, headlined by his work on the Penalty Kill. He has enough speed to back off the opposition, and can be lethal off the rush, as much as in front of the net. In Trocheck he has a fellow north-south player who isn’t afraid to shoot, and his face-off skills just add another dimension that reenforces the defense qualities of this combination.
While it may be tempting to slot Barclay Goodrow into the Right Wing role, it may make more sense to go with Jimmy Vesey. The 30 year-old earned a contract out of camp last year, and parlayed that into a two-year extension due largely to his defensive play. Even with his transition into a bottom six player, Vesey remains a better on the offensive side of the puck than Goodrow. As much as Gallant liked to use the former two-time Cup winner up and down the line-up, he is best suited to a bottom six role, or even on the fourth line.
FOURTH LINE PROJECTION
The Rangers will have plenty of options for the fourth line going into this season, but it would appear that newcomers Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick for the two vacant spots going into camp. Bonino comes in with seven straight seasons of 10+ goals, and though he’s now 35, he still appears to have enough to make the 4th line more of a threat than we’ve seen in the past. Pitlick is a bit more of a tweener, having played 61 games with St Louis last season, but 39 and 38 respectively in the previous two years. Both bring the ability to play on the Penalty Kill, and in teaming with Goodrow, will look to form a more contender-worthy fourth line than we’ve seen in previous season.
While the top twelve look fairly set, there should be some competition for the reserve forward spot. Alex Belzile played the most last year, and might have a slight advantage, though the utility of Jonny Brodzinski or Riley Smith might end up being the first choice.
It seems almost certain that Will Cuylle and Brennan Othmann will start the year in Hartford, though injuries could certainly bring them into play. Cuylle did get a 5 game cameo last year, and there’s certainly the possibility that happens again this year. Othmann probably has the harder route, but with a good start in Hartford, certainly could get a look, especially if the Rangers lose some top 9 depth to injury.
Of the remainder Adam Sykora is still just 18, so despite looking good in the prospect games, the plan will likely be to give him some time to adjust. Likewise for Bryan Berard, who just signed out of college last Spring and will look to develop for the Wolf Pack.
Bobby Trivigno had two goals in the second of the prospect games, and will be looking to build on his first full pro season last year, while Anton Blidh, Jake Leschyshyn and to a lesser extent Turner Elson, all project to be depth call-ups in case of need, and will be looked more upon to lead the Wolf Pack along with whomever doesn’t make it out of Belzile, Brodzinsky and Smith.
Matthew Rempe is probably the next ranked prospect as it stands right now, but still has plenty to work on. He projects to be a 4th liner, so working on his defensive game will be a priority. Karl Henriksson didn’t necessarily get as much offensive opportunities last year, and might get a chance to get increased time this year depending on the configuration. This may be his last year to impress, and he may elect to follow Lauri Pajuniemi back to Europe next year if it doesn’t work out. Adam Edstrom still has much to prove, and he along with Ryder Korczak might even be shifted down to Cincinnati of the ECHL to get them some quality playing time.
As it stands now, it would seem likely that Maxim Barbashev will either get a pro contract or more likely return to Moncton in the QMJHL. For 2023 6th round pick it’ll be back to the OHL for him once he completes his camp with the Rangers.