By Sean Hartnett
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Anthony Duclair has the hockey world buzzing and has become an instant favorite among diehard Rangers fans. The 19-year-old winger has entertained at every opportunity with his game-changing speed and eye for the net. His poise, maturity, natural confidence and willingness to battle has greatly impressed head coach Alain Vigneault, his coaching staff and veteran teammates.

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Nothing about this kid strikes you the way a typical 19-year-old does. Winger Carl Hagelin sees natural confidence and poise flowing from Duclair.

“He’s showed a lot of poise right away,” Hagelin said. “He has that confidence needed to succeed.”

Vigneault compared Duclair’s enthusiasm and willingness to play any role to respected veteran Martin St. Louis.

“Every time I go up to the Duke, it’s, ‘Have you killed penalties before?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ ‘Have you played the right side before?’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ So today, I went to him and said, ‘Have you played the point on the power play?’ He says, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’” Vigneault said. “Marty’s the same way.”

Duclair has scored goals in three consecutive preseason games since making his debut in Chicago last Thursday. He leads all Rangers this preseason with five points and his three goals are tied for a team best.

As the Rangers are currently carrying the maximum of 50 players under contract, they will have to make a roster move by the end of the business day next Tuesday. Duclair is not included in that figure and the Rangers must submit a salary-cap compliant roster to the league by the close of business hours on October 7.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Duclair start the regular season with the Blueshirts. Certain kids have the talent, drive and mindset to handle the pressure of playing the NHL at a tender age. Duclair doesn’t seem the least bit overwhelmed by his surroundings and all the attributes required to flourish in the NHL. If I were a betting man, I’d say Duclair will stick with the Rangers.

MCDONAGH ON DUCLAIR: ‘HE’S A COMPETITOR’

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh noted that Duclair tries to absorb every possible bit of advice when he seeks out veteran teammates.

“As of right now, he’s trying to be a sponge and absorb a lot of information and everything guys are giving him,” McDonagh said. “You can see that he’s picking the brains of the forwards, defensemen and everybody, really. So far, he’s been able to handle it and also enjoy it. I think that’s the biggest thing, too. When you’re doing that, a lot of things happen naturally out there.”

McDonagh praised Duclair for his level of focus and approach toward practice drills. He feels this is paying off for Duclair in game situations.

“He’s focused on every drill. Whether it’s a simple shooting drill or a complex five-on-five drill, you see him trying to work at his game,” McDonagh said. “It really transpires well on the ice. When you watch him in his first few games, you can see him realize when there’s a chance about to happen; he can use his skating ability and skill to create that and finish off that chance. He’s not afraid to be physical at times and goes in the hard areas. He’s smart enough to know when it’s time to back off and be in good defensive positions.

“He’s a competitor. He understands when there’s a situation to capitalize on as an offensive player, and he wants to step up. He thrives on that. He wants his puck on his stick. He’s not afraid to be patient with it and look for something else and be unselfish at times. A lot of good things are showing up right now. He understands it’s not just what you’ve done in a short little bit; it’s about doing it at a consistent level. That’s what myself and the guys are explaining to him to make sure he keeps that focus.”

‘MARTY IN THE MIDDLE’ EXPERIMENT IS UNDERWAY

St. Louis lined up at center at Wednesday’s practice during power-play drills. The 39-year-old forward centered a line of Duclair and Rick Nash.

Vigneault mentioned that St. Louis will play center in both five-on-five situations and on the power play in at least one of the Rangers’ next two upcoming exhibition games, against the Blackhawks at MSG on Friday and against the Devils in Newark on Saturday.

“I’m definitely going to try Marty in the middle of one of them,” Vigneault said. “See what happens. He says other than the face-offs, he’s pretty comfortable. The way we play in our system, it’s not center man back. It’s first forward back, then the other guys go to where we can outnumber quickly.”

Immediately after center Derek Stepan suffered a fractured left fibula on September 24, St. Louis texted Vigneault to let him know that he’d be willing to step in at center. St. Louis now looks set to assume Stepan’s minutes at center.

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It appears that St. Louis, Derick Brassard, J.T. Miller and Dominic Moore will be the Rangers’ four centers when they begin the regular season in St. Louis on October 9.

MSL ON CENTER ROLE: ‘IT’S A PROCESS.’

St. Louis feels he can handle all aspects that come with the move to center. He believes that the hardest adjustment will be taking face-offs.

“Center on the power play is nothing,” St. Louis said. “It’s not like you have to defend. The only thing at center is that you have to take draws. I think that’s going to be the toughest thing for me. I’m going to have to work at it. It’s a process. In terms of the rest of the game, I understand the position and I’m confident that I can be fine in that role. I think it’s going to be a day-to-day thing. I want to help as much as I can. It’s not my natural position and I’m willing to play that position. My biggest hurdle is going to be face-offs.”

Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle said he didn’t remember a time when St. Louis played center for the Lightning during the six years they played together in Tampa.

“Honestly, not that I can recall,” Boyle said. “I’ve always pictured him as a winger. He may have, I don’t remember that.”

Boyle knows well that St. Louis has always been the type of character who will do anything for the team.

“As you get older, all personal stats go out the window,” Boyle said. “For Marty and I, it’s not about how many goals or assists we have. It’s about winning hockey games and helping out the team. I’m not surprised he’s stepped up.”

McDonagh is confident St. Louis can handle the adjustment.

“His skating ability, his hockey sense and his skill alone will give him an opportunity to be successful and be effective in the middle of the ice at center,” McDonagh said.

RANGERS SEND NINE TO HARTFORD; NEXT ROUND OF ROSTER CUTS COMING MONDAY

On Wednesday, the Rangers assigned nine players to minor-league Hartford. Conor Allen, Mat Bodie, Chris Bourque, Ryan Bourque, Tommy Hughes, Danny Kristo, Jason Missiaen, Nick Tarnasky and Petr Zamorsky have all been sent to the Wolf Pack.

This leaves 34 players on the Rangers’ training-camp roster:

Forwards (21): Derick Brassard, Anthony Duclair, Jesper Fast, Tanner Glass, Carl Hagelin, Ryan Haggerty, Kevin Hayes, Marek Hrivik, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, Matthew Lombardi, Ryan Malone, J.T. Miller, Dominic Moore, Chris Mueller, Rick Nash, Ryan Potulny, Martin St. Louis, Lee Stempniak, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello

Defensemen (10): Dan Boyle, Dan Girardi, Matt Hunwick, Steven Kampfer, Kevin Klein, Michael Kostka, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan McIlrath, John Moore and Marc Staal

Goaltenders (3): Henrik Lundqvist, Cedrick Desjardins, Cam Talbot

Vigneault said the next round of cuts will come on Monday. He expects the roster to be trimmed to 22 or 23 players, depending on whether the injured Stepan will be placed on the long-term injured reserve for salary-cap reasons.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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