By Sean Hartnett
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When the Rangers drafted centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil in the first round of last summer’s draft, they did so with the intention of upgrading a position that has undergone dramatic alterations in recent seasons. Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan, who were once considered essential to the franchise’s long-term vision, were traded in consecutive offseasons.
Step 1 in the blueprint toward strengthening down the middle was gaining a younger, faster and more effective two-way center by swapping Brassard for Mika Zibanejad. Since joining the Rangers, Zibanejad also has been more productive than his predecessor at 0.67 points per game through 97 regular season contests compared to Brassard’s 0.52 points through 128 games as an Ottawa Senator.
At age 24, Zibanejad’s stock is on the rise, and he’s entering his prime years. The 6-foot-2 Swede is signed through the 2021-22 season at a cap-friendly annual-average value of $5.35 million. Zibanejad gains no-movement clause protection in 2019-20, continuing for the final two years of his contract.
An upcoming no-trade or no-movement clause is no guarantee of a player’s future being tied to a franchise. Stepan agreed to a six-year pact with the Rangers in the summer of 2015, just hours before a scheduled arbitration hearing. He professed his love for the only organization he had ever known.
“It’s a great feeling,” Stepan said upon signing the contract. “I can’t be more excited to be a part of a team that I absolutely love. I love the city of New York. I’m grateful for the fans, grateful for the management there, and my wife and I are extremely happy to be there for the next six years.”
The arrangement only lasted for two additional years. Ahead of the 2017 draft, Stepan was traded, along with goaltender Antti Raanta, for the seventh overall pick and high-upside defenseman Tony DeAngelo. Using the seventh and 21st overall picks, respectively, the Rangers restocked their center depth by selecting Andersson and Chytil.
Though Stepan and Brassard provided their share of unforgettable game-winning playoff goals and were popular figures inside the Rangers’ dressing room, speed and youth are what wins in the modern NHL. The rival Pittsburgh Penguins captured back-to-back Stanley Cups through an infusion of complementary youngsters and blazing-fast legs. Suddenly, a Rangers team that had advanced to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and consecutive Eastern Conference finals in 2014 and 2015 was forced into playing catch-up.
If Zibanejad’s arrival was Step 1, then Step 2 of their long-term plan at center is developing Andersson, 19, and Chytil, 18, into core players at the NHL level. Currently, the pair of pivots are learning their trade at AHL Hartford. They became the first pair of Rangers’ first-round picks to play as AHL teammates in their draft year.
Chytil made his NHL debut on opening night after impressing during a preseason that earned him the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award for top training camp rookie. He appeared in two games for the Blueshirts, skating for a total of 12:39 without a point in either game before being assigned to Hartford on Oct. 10.
Lately, the 6-foot-2 center is thriving against minor-league competition. Chytil has recorded eight points (two goals, six assists) in the last seven games for Hartford. Overall, he has contributed 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) through 24 AHL games. The Rangers believe that the Czech teenager has the smarts and physical tools to one day develop into the complete package at the NHL level.
“His understanding of positioning in his defensive zone, forechecking, and faceoffs are beyond his years of age,” Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark said of Chytil. “He will use his sense, speed, size and strength to become a top-six forward and a playmaking center in the NHL.”
Andersson began the season with Frolunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League, totaling 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 22 SHL games. Since arriving at Hartford following a silver medal-winning 2018 World Juniors, the 5-foot-11 center has appeared in three AHL games, chipping in two assists.
In his Wolf Pack debut against the Utica Comets on Jan. 24, Andersson contributed to Cole Schneider’s game-winning overtime goal. Andersson won the defensive-zone faceoff and recorded the secondary assist on the winning play.
What stands out about Andersson’s style of play is a ceaseless worth ethic and the versatility to play all three forward positions. Throughout his youth, the determined Swede has been described as a coach’s dream, and his advanced two-way aptitude lends credence to the belief among scouts that he will enjoy a long NHL career.
“He’s a hell of a player, (and) fans will love him,” Clark said. “He’s got a combination of grit and the (scoring) ability that we’ve been looking for.”
Andersson captained Sweden at the 2018 World Juniors and attracted criticism from some corners of hockey media for tossing his silver medal into the crowd. Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault pointed to the incident as evidence of Andersson’s fiery competitiveness.
“You want your players to compete, to be competitive, to not like to lose,” Vigneault told the New York Post earlier this month. “So, all that part I like about it. There’s behavior and conduct, but he’s a young man, and he wants to win. So that’s real positive.”
Andersson played the semifinal and final of the tournament with a separated shoulder. He finished the World Juniors with seven points (six goals, one assists) in seven games.
There is hockey lineage in Andersson’s blood. His father, Niklas, was a left wing who skated for 164 NHL games spread across five clubs between 1993 and 2000. Niklas appeared in 138 games for the Islanders over two stints. His uncle, Mikael, skated in 786 combined NHL regular season and playoff games.
For the first time since 2011, the Rangers are a bubble playoff team and are carefully weighing how deep their list of available players extends ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Having begun January 5-7-0, underwhelming results and a necessity at the center position could force the promotion of Andersson and/or Chytil. The future could be arriving at Madison Square Garden sooner than expected.
Please follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey