David Quinn is short on time to make crucial Rangers decisions
Regarding the Rangers, who are preparing to reassemble on the ice in 13 — for Alexis Lafreniere, of course — days.
1. The abbreviated training camp of 10 days without even a single exhibition game will not grant time or opportunity for much trial and error. So it will likely be incumbent upon David Quinn and the staff to determine right out of the gate whether Brett Howden and Morgan Barron will compete for jobs at center or on the wing.
The top three spots down the middle are accounted for by Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil. Presuming the Rangers do not stack Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Lafreniere on the left side, there is going to be a spot open on the third-line flank.
Where does the hierarchy believe Howden (who played wing exclusively over the final 10 weeks last season until returning to the middle for the three qualifying-round games against Carolina) would have the most value?
The same question applies to Barron, the freshman pro whom the Rangers had planned to try at the wing had he been deemed eligible for the 2020 tournament.
Decisions made in early January most certainly would not be etched in stone, but there will be limited opportunity for training camp experimentation.
And again, at least through the opening weeks of the season, there will be no AHL available for Howden or Barron to get in top-line work rather than having either or both getting reduced fourth-line minutes on Broadway.
2. The truncated 56-game season will not be forgiving of teams that get off to a slow start. For that reason, it would be reasonable for Quinn to open the season with the known quantity of the Chris Kreider-Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich first line. You want to have a foundation.
But going with that triumvirate would necessarily consign either Lafreniere or Kaapo Kakko to third-line duty and I do not believe that benefits either of the marquee selections of the past two Entry Drafts.
Keep this is mind: Kakko and Chytil formed one of the most imperfect unions imaginable when they skated together last season. In 290:49 of shared five-on-five time, they recorded a 45.27 Corsi, a 45.59 shot share and were on the ice for five goals for and 18 against. Would the Blueshirts try a rerun?
Assigning Lafreniere to the third line seems silly. The Rangers should do everything in their power to allow the first-overall selection to hit the ground running. That means giving him the opportunity to skate with Zibanejad.
And that means moving Buchnevich out of the top-six and onto Chytil’s unit. By the way, No. 89 combined with No. 72 for 219:13 five-on-minutes through which the tandem accounted for a 54.61 Corsi, 58.19 shot share and 12 goals for with eight goals against. So that’s a start.
If it were my call, I’d go with Kreider-Zibanejad-Lafreniere (and don’t be surprised if No. 13 is the one who shifts to his off-wing) and Panarin-Strome-Kakko as the top two units.
And I’d have Buchnevich skate with Chytil, leaving an opening on the wing for Howden, Barron, Julien Gauthier or Brendan Lemieux to seize.
3. It would be a surprise — make that, significant disappointment — if Libor Hajek is unable to nail down a spot on the varsity among the top six defensemen. After all, the 22-year-old earned a position on the team last year off a strong camp. Plus, the Rangers are on an accelerated need-to-know basis here because of expansion-draft protection matters.
So, he should play … unless, that is, either K’Andre Miller or/and Tarmo Reunanen completely eclipse Hajek. Would the Rangers dare go with two kids behind 65-game NHL veteran Ryan Lindgren on the left while carrying Brendan Smith or Jack Johnson as the seventh defenseman and consigning the other to the taxi squad?
The taxi squad will consist of four-to-six players. One slot must be reserved for a goaltender. The Rangers would save $1.075 million on the cap if either Smith or Johnson is waived through to the taxi squad, though it’s unlikely that the club would waive a guy it just signed as a free agent on incoming assistant coach Jacques Martin’s recommendation, isn’t it?
And as someone else would replace Smith on the varsity, the saving ultimately would be in the range of $250,000-$400,000.
4. Players testing positive or otherwise deemed unfit to play because of COVID-19 protocols will be deemed non-roster players — apart from going on IR or LTI — but will still continue to count against the cap. They would return to the roster immediately upon being medically cleared.
Players who become non-roster players due to health protocols will be identified during the season, though those testing positive or otherwise unfit to play during camp will not be named.
5. Meanwhile, it seems odd that LTI requirements under which players on the list are required to miss 10 games and 24 days have not been prorated. Missing 10 games of the 82-game season equates to 12.2 percent of the year. But that equates to 17.8 percent of this season.
6. There has as yet been no determination of the impact on the cap of prorating entry-level bonuses. The Rangers, who stand to be charged at least $3.95 million against the cap on entry-level bonuses, would benefit most significantly from a change in the formula, which might be reason enough for the league not to entertain it.
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