When Kaapo Kakko dropped out of the line-up last month, an already weak position on the right wing got suddenly moreso. The thought was, that the Rangers needed another top six winger to make a serious run this year at a Stanley Cup, capitalizing on career form from Igor Shesterkin, as well as Chris Kreider.
As everyone knows, the Rangers ability to score at 5v5 has been underwhelming this year, instead relying on a potent power play lead by Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, and the goaltending of Shesterkin to keep the team in the contest. This approach to winning would be hard to sustain in the playoffs, where a reliance on third and even fourth lines to contribute, is the hallmark of most successful teams.
Into the breach has stepped Alexis Lafreniere. While the initial experiments with the former first overall pick on his offwing were not deemed a success, head coach Gerard Gallant was forced to try and again, and this time it seems to have resulted in some success. With five goals and an assist in the last nine games, the 20 year old winger seems to be finding his place in the line-up. Perhaps just as important, is that Lafreniere now appears to be playing with a level of confidence that we certainly haven’t seen this year, if at all at the NHL level.
His passes are not rushed, they are on target, and his decision making seems to have improved. In hockey terms, he seems to have slowed the game down, and is now making the plays out of intent, rather than hope or desperation.
The addition of the offense, which sees him now 4th on the team in terms of goals wiht 13, has been welcomed in a Rangers line-up that has struggled to address the gap for much of the year. It also perhaps changes the calculation of GM Chris Drury, as to where to focus at the upcoming trade deadline. While there’s no official timeline for Kakko’s return, the expectation is, he’ll be back for the playoffs, and would logically slot into the second line spot that is currently being occupied by Dryden Hunt.
That line had some chemistry earlier in the year, before Gallant moved Kakko up to the Zibanejad line back in November. The hope would be, that the trio could regain some of that, which would give the Rangers a bit more scoring depth.
If the Rangers can then look to upgrade their third line, and get a couple of mid-six level guys who could play with Filip Chytil, or even look to replace Chytil too, then the Rangers could perhaps establish a line-up that was deep enough to at least compete. The cost for these types of guys would certainly be less than the likes of a J.T. Miller or Claude Giroux, and would be perhaps a wiser bet than leveraging some of the more valuable assets now to pay for a rental.
With that said, it’s hard to see how the Rangers can truly improve at the deadline with around 20 games left in the season to try and integrate any new players. Ideally they’d be looking at someone they can add beyond this season, though with the Cap situation the way it is next year, options are going to be limited.
On defense, the calculations may also have changed a little if the new combination of Patrik Nemeth and Braden Schneider continues to play well after a promising start. The pair have been together for only a handful of games, but Nemeth seems more settled with his rookie partner, than he has with any of the other options tried to date. If this continues, then the Rangers may instead focus on depth rather than a starter, and it might be a good option for a low-cost rental.
With an assist last night, Hunt has tied his career highs for assists (7) and points (10), to go along with his equal career high of 3 goals, set earlier in the season. With 28 games to go, the sometime second liner, looks almost certain to set new career milestones in all three categories.
A couple of other Rangers are also looking at significant marks. Chris Kreider scored his 35th goal of the season, and is now 15 away from becoming just the 4th Ranger to break 50 goals. He now needs 15 more goals in 28 games, which is slightly lower than his current pace. The franchise record is 54, set by Jaromir Jagr in the 2005-06 season.
Goaltender Igor Shesterkin also has a shot at matching or breaking the team record of 42 wins, set by Mike Richter in the 1993-94 Cup winning season. Shesterkin picked up his 26th win last night, and needs 16 more in the remaining 28 games. Providing he stays healthy, he’s a real shot to achieve that mark, and doing so in an 82 game seasson versus 84 games, and missing some time earlier due to injury/illness.
Forward Kevin Rooney has been placed on Injury Reserve today, following a high stick in last night’s game against the St Louis Blues. Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko appeared to lead with his stick, catching Rooney in the face during what was a St Louis power play. Rooney tried to continue but was unable to play in the second period and beyond.
While Ryan Lindgren is not yet expected to miss any time, his late game shot block resulted in this interesting series which saw Shesterkin try to shove the floundering defender to the bench as the Rangers sought to close the game out.
Patrik Nemeth says he’s finally feeling normal again. The Swedish defender has been on and off the roster since contracting COVID19 back in December, and has not been a reliable option on the blueline since then. Now after he took a two game sabbatical to be with his family for the birth of their first child, Nemeth says he is finally feeling normal again, and as mentioned above, has started a promising pairing with Schneider.