New York Rangers: Who do players returning from injury put pressure on?

PHILADELPHIA, PA – NOVEMBER 23: Mats Zuccarello #36 of the New York Rangers skates the puck against the Philadelphia Flyers on November 23, 2018 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

After nearly a whole month without either Mats Zuccarello or Pavel Buchnevich, both forwards are expected to return over the course of the weekend. With so much turnover, who’s going to get pushed out of the lineup.

All things considered, the last month of New York Rangers hockey probably should have gone worse. Without two of the team’s best forwards in Mats Zuccarello and Pavel Buchnevich, the offense dried up to an embarrassingly bad level. Granted, anytime a team loses two of its six best forwards, generating offense can be a challenge.

For a New York team that received a stark reality check over the past two weeks, the reinforcements could not come at a better time. Think about the duct tape assembled offense David Quinn was forced to use without Zuccarello or Buchnevich.

Sure, Ryan Strome has contributed nicely to the Rangers since being traded from Edmonton, but the forward is much better suited for a complementary role in the bottom six as opposed to playing heavy difficult minutes. There are a handful of candidates to be sent down to Hartford or to watch games from the press box with a semi-healthy lineup.

The return of more talent will also enable a more equal allocation of minutes. In the Ranger’s last game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Kevin Hayes had three more minutes of ice time than any other forward on the team.

For the Rangers to be effective, the players on the ice need to play as a talent greater than its parts. This requires four balanced lines working in unison with one another that chip away at the opposition over the course of the game.

While Quinn has managed to put a team together with players from the shuttle squad, here are a few players who may feel a crunch for lineup time.

Lias Andersson

Through 16 games of his first NHL season, the Rangers’ former number seven overall pick has struggled to make an impact. Though no fault of his own, Lias Andersson was given an extremely sheltered role and plays a safe style that does not produce offense.

With the return of both Zuccarello and Buchnevich, there is a legitimate argument to return the Swede to the AHL and give him lots of ice time. Letting the shuttle squad players like Steven Fogarty and Cole Schneider play the fourth line minutes at the NHL level makes more sense than it does for a former top ten pick.

While both Quinn and the front office insist that Andersson is here to stay with the big club, what is really being gained from minimal ice time with subpar linemates. If the former Boston University coach is waiting for Andersson to make an impact and earn his place higher up in the lineup as Filip Chytil did, it may take a while.

The Swede plays a safe and nonflashy game that is not conducive to offensive production. The points will come with time, but it’ll require a better situation. At just 20-years-old, Andersson will figure things out as he gets more experience. It’s more a matter of when than if.

Steven Fogarty

As one of the aforementioned shuttle squad players that can be called up in the morning and ready to play at seven pm the same day, Steven Fogarty will likely never be anything more than an injury call-up at the NHL level. While Fogarty has about as low ceiling as possible as a player, he’s not totally useless and can skate at least moderately well.

On a bad team like New York, Fogarty will always have a role. The Rangers simply don’t have enough NHL quality talent to fill out an entire 18 skater lineup without dipping into this shuttle squad. One of them is likely to stay even with the return of Zuccarello and Buchnevich from injured reserve.

For the Rangers, Fogarty represents a warm body to fill out the lineup. In ten games the forward has failed to register a single point or make any discernable impact. This shouldn’t require too much thinking from the front office and coaching staff to swap out a spare part for top six talent. At age 25, Fogarty has played just 11 NHL games, if he ever hits 50, it’d be a shock.

Ryan Strome

As previously mentioned, Strome has chipped in nicely since joining the Rangers. In 11 games with New York, the forward has contributed six points while averaging 16:30 of ice time. Strome joined the team at a time when the offense was starting to sputter, so against its backdrop, he’s looked reasonably good.

However, the Rangers would be much better off as a team with Strome in the bottom six. In that type of role, Strome would give New York one of the better depth forwards in the league. A quality team has 30 and 40 point forwards mixed in throughout the bottom six. When a team can get offense from all four lines, it keeps the opposition off balance.

Gone are the days in which the fourth line’s sole purpose was cracking skulls in the corners and throwing the body around. In today’s NHL, every single player must be capable of contributing to some degree at both ends of the ice. Balance is something that the Rangers’ lineup has sorely lacked the past few weeks.

In fact, Quinn experimented with a crazy top-heavy lineup of Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad to try and generate some type of offense. Now, New York can restore some order and distribute offense more evenly.

The return of Zuccarello and Buchnevich won’t fix all of the Rangers’ offensive problems, but at the very least should mitigate some of them.