The Rangers won last night’s pre-season contest with the New Jersey Devils in overtime, by a score of 4-3. But as is always true in pre-season, the final score mattered less than the performance of individual players and line combinations. For both teams last night, that was particularly true, as the coaching staff uses these games to evaluate the players before another round of cuts coming this weekend.
For New York, it was the first opportunity to see the team’s 2017 first-round picks on the ice in the same game. The seventh overall pick, Lias Andersson, and the twenty-first, Filip Chytil, both centered Rangers’ lines, and both were quite impressive in very different ways. Andersson, who had already played in Monday night’s pre-season tilt and posted an assist while winning seven of 11 faceoffs in that game, did not record any points playing on the fourth line last night; but he got an opportunity to play in shorthanded situations. According to Head Coach Alain Vigneault, “I wanted to get a sense of his understanding on the penalty killing. We have not had a lot of time to practice specialty teams … we’re trying to see how quick some of [the young players’] can pick up. I thought that for the most part, he did alright.” To my thinking, he did more than an adequate job in that capacity and he strengthened his chances of winning an available spot on the fourth line with fine two-way play. Andersson clearly has not hurt himself with his play over the last two games and, if he continues on this trajectory, he will almost certainly stick with the team this season.
What to do with Chytil, however, is another matter. The man/boy who scored the OT winner in last night’s game just turned 18 year old two weeks ago. Although he has a big frame (6’2”) and technically weighs enough to compete at the NHL level, there are questions whether he has the lower body strength to play full-time at this level. But the elite qualities of his skating and the release of his shot will put the Rangers in a conundrum. Chytil appears to be a game-breaker, and just as he scored the OT game-winner last night, he may do so at any time during the season. So, can the Rangers really afford to keep him off the roster? During the next two weeks, he will decide his own fate. If he continues to show his offensive prowess against tough opponents (particularly Phillie on Monday night), probably yes, but remember he missed the Traverse City tournament because of a groin pull and this may be a flash in the pan. What I remember is that put on the first line with Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello in last night’s game, the effect was electric.
An excellent playmaker, Chytil was on the ice for three of the Rangers’ four goals. He just appears to see the ice better than most out there. But, it is not clear yet what he will become. Chytil could be the real deal and become an elite player in the league, or he could become a power play only specialist. Time will tell. But the Rangers have a decision to make as to where Chytil starts the season (he was drafted seventh overall by the OHL North Bay Battalion in this year’s CHL import draft)—and not too long to make it. What a nice problem to have.
As for other Ranger players that stood out, the Kevin Hayes that showed up last night is the one we have been looking for the past two seasons. Strong, north-south going to the net, and making things happen, he played really well last night with Jimmy Vesey, whose on-ice vision is outstanding. Vesey is a smart hockey player, who just scratched the surface with his performance last year. The two of them together were dynamic.
Highly prized free agent Kevin Shattenkirk had an up-and-down night. When you look at the scoresheet, you see three assists next to Shatty’s name and that’s great. But, and it’s a big but, you also see five giveaways. This has always been the book on Shattenkirk—he can play really well on the offensive side of the puck, but he can also be a big defensive liability. If the Rangers want to be a Stanley Cup contender, Shattenkirk will have to tighten up his game.
As for the Devils, both Jimmy Hayes and Drew Stafford had excellent games. Stafford, a 31-year old, 11 –year veteran, signed a one year deal with the Devils in August. He had two assists and delivered four hits in last night’s game. He was visible a lot of the night, playing on the right side of Pavel Zacha ( a rising star within the Devils organization) and Brian Gibbons (a borderline NHLer signed to a one-year deal with New Jersey this summer).
Hayes is the older brother of the Rangers’ Kevin Hayes. The elder Hayes had a very disappointing season with the Boston Bruins in 2016-17 and was bought out this summer. Now on a PTO with the Devils, Hayes looked great last night. Posting a goal and an assist in the 4-3 loss, his positioning was good as was his vision and skating. He is definitely worthy of an NHL contract.
The Rangers next game is Thursday night against the New York Islanders—the game will take place in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Devils will play tonight in Montreal.