The New York Rangers have made several important moves already this off-season. However, General Manager Jeff Gorton still has one more task to accomplish.
This off-season has been quite busy for the New York Rangers. The team has welcomed many new faces, but also has had to say goodbye to numerous recent mainstays.
Two of those players, Derek Stepan and Oscar Lindberg were the Rangers’ top and fourth line centers respectively. Currently, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes are expected to reprise their roles as top-nine centers next season.
However, in order for the New York Rangers to truly be Stanley Cup Contenders for the 2017-18 season, they must acquire another center.
An Internal Solution?
The Rangers may decide to replenish their center depth by using their current players. There appear to be a number of in-house options to replace Oscar Lindberg.
The team may turn to Boo Nieves, who had a cup of coffee with the big club last season. Given their selection of Lias Andersson seventh overall in this years’ draft, they also may expect him to make a hard push for a roster spot this season.
However, when it comes to replacing Stepan as the team’s top center, it will be a much taller order.
I think that the team will turn to Mika Zibanejad to step up and take the top line job. Over the course of his injury shortened 2016-17 season, Zibanejad scored at a rate of 0.66 points per game. This would have translated to 54 points in 82 games, one less than Stepan’s season total.
The main internal candidate for team’s other top-three center slot is J.T. Miller. Miller, like Stepan, also scored at least 55 points last season. However, Miller played on the wing last season and has for the majority of his time in New York. Given his recent usage and familiarity as a winger, I think it would make more sense to keep Miller there.
The Rangers may feel they are better off opening training camp up with an open competition for those center slots. However, I think it would behoove them to acquire another top-nine center before camp breaks.
Cup Contenders and Center Depth
The reason why the Rangers must bring in another top flight center is simple. Without one, they cannot be considered true Stanley Cup Contenders.
One doesn’t have to look to far to see the impact of having or lacking quality center depth has upon getting to and winning the Stanley Cup Final.
This postseason Nashville Predators lost their top center, Ryan Johansen, before their Finals date with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Without him, they were unable to match up adequately with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Predators put up a valiant fight but lost in six games, while the Penguins’ center depth propelled them to a second straight Stanley Cup victory.
The Penguins’ third line center Nick Bonino, was instrumental for them in this effort the past two postseasons. As a result, he was paid handsomely by those selfsame Predators on July 1st.
Looking at the past few Stanley Cup Champions, the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have all sported at least one elite center and two other quality centers.
The Rangers’ Center Depth
While the Rangers will probably not be able to acquire a true elite/top-ten center, they should attempt to sign a quality middle-six center. They could acquire this player by trade or free agency.
I see the Rangers as then being able to follow a similar blueprint to the team that made the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.
That team boasted Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard as the teams’ top three centers. There was no one elite center among them, Stepan led the pack with 57 regular season points (Richards had 51, Brassard had 45).
However, their depth and versatility was one of the team’s greatest strengths. The Rangers used this depth to exploit match ups, especially with the third line. This also allowed them to shift playing time of their lines depending on their play and effectiveness game to game.
This also was a hallmark of the team’s dynamic offense last season. If a particular line was being keyed in on by their opponent’s top defenders or having a rough stretch, the others often could pick up the slack.
Of course, the other important dimension into bringing on another quality center is injuries. The Rangers experienced this last season when Zibanejad missed around one-third of the season.
They were able to weather the storm by reallocating responsibilities and ice time while being able to utilize their organizational depth. Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg shifted up while Marek Hrivik was recalled from Hartford.
As it stands, a lengthy injury to Zibanejad or Hayes would be quite costly for the Rangers. Having another top-nine center would allow the team to better mitigate this type of loss.
Potential External Options
Since the loss of Stepan and Lindberg, the team here at Blue Line Station has been examining several options at center.
While most of the top targets have already been signed, there are still a number of free agents available, such as Mikhail Grigorenko and Jussi Jokinen.
Additionally, while highly unlikely, the Rangers could send an offer sheet at one of a few tantalizing restricted free agents.
With the Rangers’ Cup window appearing to be closing, they can ill afford another wasted season of Henrik Lundqvist. Jeff Gorton seems to have realized this by revamping the team’s dreadful defense. The acquisition of a top-nine center should put the Rangers over the top and firmly into the conversation of Stanley Cup Contenders for next season.