The New York Rangers have only played three games thus far, where they’ve gone 2-1 in successful outings against the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets (despite a 5-3 defeat), and Arizona Coyotes. These teams missed the playoffs last season, but the Rangers performed well against teams that have significantly improved their lineups. With the league getting younger and faster, one might worry that the Rangers, now one of the older teams, would struggle to keep up.
So far, the takeaway regarding lines from the first three games is Peter Laviolette’s attitude to the new season. In previous seasons, lines were inconsistent from night to night and even during games, as wingers were cycled without giving lines a chance to pop. The most prominent players who got shuffled were Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière, who have struggled to establish themselves in their young careers. Fans were never happy, and even when the Kids did get a chance, it was merely for a game or two.
This season, however, things have changed. All of the Rangers’ lines, whether on offense or defense, are well above 50% expected goal shares, aside from the Zac Jones-Braden Schneider pair and the fourth line. The lines have been consistent for four games straight, and as New York plays Nashville at the time of writing this, the top 3 lines have remained the same for the better part of the season. Most notably, Lafrenière, Kakko, and Filip Chytil have all secured spots in the top 6, whereas a previous coach (looking at you, Gerard Gallant) might’ve put them in various spots on the middle 6, not giving them enough opportunity to shine.
Despite a 5-3 loss to Colombus, this stubbornness to stick to those lines has proved to be a good decision. Amongst the entire NHL, the Rangers’ top 9 are within the top 30 of forward lines in expected goals percentage minimum of 15 minutes of ice time (per moneypuck.com). Furthermore, each line, led by the third line, exhibits an expected goals percentage above 60%. It’s a small sample size but a promising one on two fronts.
For one, the new lines are a success because they’re the best possible combinations. Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Kakko showed chemistry last season and have proven success in driving play. Artemi Panarin, Chytil, and Lafrenière inject Panarin’s skill with Chytil’s play-driving while allowing Laf to shine in the top 6, even scoring the opening goal against Buffalo last Thursday. Will Cuylle, Vincent Trocheck, and veteran winger Blake Wheeler provide a strong forechecking line against the other team’s third lines.
The team is well-balanced, and Laviolette has stuck to the best possible line combinations. He even mentioned his willingness to stick to lines on Wednesday:
This is something Rangers fans have been waiting to hear for years now. To see the Kids (who are all older than 22) in the top 6 and the head coach stick to lines that the fans know have the potential to succeed. Whether or not these lines stick throughout the season is the question. However, so far, it’s a good start. Add to this that all of these lines have experienced success, and it’s likely that the Rangers might hit their peak under Laviolette.