Tonight we will see a top line of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Kaapo Kakko to start the first preseason game against the Devils. But, is this a potential line to start the season? After yesterday’s practice, Head Coach David Quinn reminded us of his intention to play Pavel Buchnevich on the right side of this line to start the season. Even if Kakko kills it on the line tonight? Actually, the answer should still be, yes. Kakko should start on the second line.
You may argue that Buchnevich has a lot of talent and he finished the season very well last spring. But he does not have Kakko’s talent and cannot contribute to the same extent. However, if Kakko is on the right side, who will make room for the play to develop and who will make sure that there is traffic in front of the net. From watching him play over the last 5 days, making room for other players is not Kakko’s game. Going to the net does not use some of his best talents—which are handling the puck, being creative offensively, and using his excellent release. Coincidently, that is Panarin’s talent too. And Mika is not going to go to the net either. So, the line that takes the ice, no matter how good it does, is not a reasonable top line during the regular season. On the other hand, Buchnevich can and should go to the net. He can make room for Mika and for Panarin. Giving him a shot at it is the logical choice.
Then the question becomes, who will center the second line? Will it be Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden? It is a hard question to answer right now—the Rangers are hoping that Chytil will step up and grab the spot, but it will mostly depend on his ability to win face offs. He was not particularly successful last season and, despite him working on it intensely during the off season, it has not been clear from the few opportunities we have had to see him in camp that Chytil will win a sufficient percentage of face offs to allow him to remain slotted as the second line center. That leaves Andersson or Howden. Andersson will get an opportunity to show what he has tonight, but even if he is better at taking face offs than is Chytil, will he have enough offensive skill to remain a top six player? Howden is the wild card here, as he has shown very little in camp to indicate that he is ready for this role. Some decision will have to be made, but a second line center may be this team’s Achilles heel this season.
If Chytil steps up, as the Rangers are hoping, a line with Chris Kreider on the left and Kakko on the right is an interesting thought. The coaching staff is expected to give this a look in later games, but potentially this is a very high skill, high scoring second line. A potentially potent third line could contain Brendan Lemieux, Lias Andersson, and Vitali Kravtsov. In fact, that would give the Rangers three scoring lines.
Howden, Ryan Strome, Jesper Fast, and Vlad Namestnikov would then be relegated to a fourth line, which although would be less offensively minded, it does have some offensive upside and could take the ice on the penalty kill.
Interesting problems to have and so different from what the Blueshirts faced just last season.