By Sean Hartnett
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Prior to Monday’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault confirmed that J.T. Miller will begin this season on the wing. This decision clarifies the Blueshirts’ positional battles at forward with just eight days left before the regular season opens.
Previously, it was unclear whether Miller would line up at his natural position of center or on wing – where he’s spent most of his NHL career. Vigneault electing to keep Miller on the wing has been made possible by the encouraging play of rookie centers Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Vinni Lettieri.
Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes will occupy the top two spots down the middle, while offseason signing David Desharnais will fill a bottom-six role. Youngsters like Chytil, Andersson and Lettieri are among those making their case to stick with the Rangers when the regular season opens Oct. 5.
“A lot of guys are making it very hard for us as far as decision-making,” Vigneault said. “With J.T., his versatility — he can play left, right, in the middle — it’s such a bonus for a team. We wanted to give him a little bit more experience by starting him off (at center). But right now in my mind, with the performance of a few of our guys down the middle, Desharnais coming in … J.T. is going to start on wing.”
Lettieri and Chytil received heavy minutes in Monday’s 3-2 overtime win. Captain Ryan McDonagh notched the overtime winner. Zibanejad and Nash found the net in regulation. Franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist recorded 37 saves on 39 shots against.
Chytil skated for 17:57 TOI and recorded an assist on McDonagh’s game-winner. The 18-year-old Czech center tied for the team lead with four shots on goal and has registered a point (one goal, two assists) in each of the three preseason games he has played.
Vigneault approached Monday’s game with the idea that the Flyers would dress a lineup close to a regular season lineup and wanted to test Chytil. The youngster’s ability to control the puck, make plays and skate like the wind has impressed Vigneault.
“We put him in difficult situations, and again tonight, from my standpoint, you see a real strong skater there and confident with the puck,” Vigneault. “I threw him out there, and for the most part, I thought he did well tonight.”
Andersson skated for 10:23 TOI. The 18-year-old Swede possesses a tremendous work ethic and intelligent, two-way smarts. Lettieri skated for 18:12 TOI. The former University of Minnesota standout has turned heads throughout the preseason. His ability to get in dangerous scoring areas and make intelligent plays on both ends of the ice seem to be constants in his game.
It’s possible that Chytil, Andersson and Lettieri all make the opening night roster should the Rangers carry 14 forwards into the regular season. Keep in mind, winger Jesper Fast is not expected to be ready for game action until November.
The Rangers will finish their preseason schedule Tuesday in Philadelphia. It will be a last chance for opening-night-roster hopefuls to leave an impression in Vigneault’s mind. Following the game, the Rangers will make further roster cutdowns. According to Vigneault, the roster will be trimmed to 24 or 25 players. Currently, 34 players remain on the preseason roster – including 21 forwards.
One Ranger center whose future looks murky is 31-year-old veteran Andrew Desjardins. The NHL Department of Player Safety announced Monday night that Desjardins will be suspended two preseason games for an illegal check to the head of New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood. It will be the first suspension of Desjardins’ career.
Desjardins joined the Rangers on a professional tryout agreement and this suspension will cost him the chance to audition once more for Vigneault. Even if he wasn’t suspended, it’s hard to envision how Desjardins could earn a spot on the team given how well younger, higher-upside centers are performing.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey