Battle For Bottom-Six Forward Spot, Third-Pairing And Seventh D Should Be Fierce

By Sean Hartnett
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In a month’s time, head coach Alain Vigneault will be putting the Rangers through their paces at the team’s Greenburgh training facility. Although much of last season’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning roster remains intact, there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding how the final roster spots will shake out during training camp and the preseason.

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Training camp opens on Sept. 17 and the Rangers will begin their six-game preseason schedule four days later, when they host the Devils.

The recent signing of right-handed center Jarret Stoll at a bargain cap hit of $800,000 is a sneaky-good addition that should help solidify the Rangers down the middle. Stoll brings strength, faceoff expertise and the pedigree of a two-time Stanley Cup champion.

If general manager Jeff Gorton’s comments can be taken at face value, the Rangers are content with their positional depth heading into camp.

“We made a lot of moves to hopefully improve ourselves and we’ll see,” Gorton said during last Monday’s conference call announcing the Stoll signing. “I don’t envision anything. If something comes down the road that will help the team, we’ll be on another conference call.”

The presence of Stoll and fellow offseason addition Viktor Stalberg appears to put rugged winger Tanner Glass’ job in jeopardy. It’s hard to see how Glass fits into the equation. Stalberg’s speed and production makes him an upgrade as a depth winger. Stalberg recorded 10 points in 25 regular season games for the Nashville Predators last season, while Glass collected six points in 66 games.

Last season, Stoll finished second among Los Angeles Kings forwards in shorthanded TOI/GP at 1:30. His arrival appears to diminish Glass’ value to the Rangers as a penalty-killing forward. Stoll and defensively-sound winger Jesper Fast are better suited to assume the shorthanded minutes vacated by Carl Hagelin’s trade to Anaheim.

Finding a taker for Glass’ remaining two-year contract at annual-average cap hit of $1.45 million won’t be easy. Glass is averaging 0.14 points per game for his career. Last season’s P/GP of 0.09 was tied for 737th among 882 NHL skaters.

According to HockeysCap.com, the Rangers have $50,500 left in remaining cap space on a 23-man roster which includes Raphael Diaz as the seventh defenseman. Sending Glass to the minors would free up much-needed cap room, but would also force the Rangers to carry $500,000 in dead cap space.

The Rangers’ top six forwards are set, aside from figuring out who plays on Derek Stepan’s right wing. Sophomore forward Kevin Hayes could fill that role by making a full-time switch to the wing and J.T. Miller proved he could handle top-six responsibilities during the playoffs. Miller’s TOI/GP jumped from 12:41 to 14:38 in the playoffs, while Mats Zuccarello missed the final two rounds and now-retired winger Martin St. Louis slumped.

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Vigneault has a slew of options for filling out his bottom six forwards. Either Hayes or Miller will slide to the third line. Should Stoll center the third line, high-potential winger Emerson Etem could occupy the left wing. This would allow Dominic Moore to retain his role as fourth line center with Fast remaining on the right wing.

There are a lot of flexible pieces for Vigneault to tinker with along the bottom six. Hayes, Miller, Stoll, Moore, and Swedish rookie Oscar Lindberg are all capable of playing center – though Stoll and Moore have established themselves as dependable NHL faceoff men. Stoll has recorded a faceoff percentage of 51 or higher in every season of his 12-year career. Moore won 54.5 percent of faceoffs last season.

If Lindberg has a strong camp, he could beat out Stoll and company for the third line center role. The 23-year-old agreed to a two-year, $1.3 million contract this summer.

Lindberg plays a responsible two-way game and recorded 28 goals and 28 assists for the Hartford Wolf Pack last season. He made his NHL debut on Feb. 24 at MSG against the Calgary Flames, while Rick Nash was out of the lineup due to neck spasms. Lindberg recorded two shots, three hits, and was 2-for-5 on faceoffs in 8:18 TOI.

“Great job by Oscar,” captain Ryan McDonagh said following Lindberg’s debut. “Coming in and playing physical, being simple, didn’t turn many pucks over, if any; couple good shots, too.”

Lindberg led the Wolf Pack in game-winning goals and shots on goal, ranked second in goals, assists, points, and power play goals, tied for second in games played, and ranked fifth in plus/minus rating. Because his two-year deal is a one-way contract, he would need to pass through waivers to be sent to the minors.

Another young player to follow closely during the preseason is 21-year-old defenseman Brady Skjei. After helping the University of Minnesota to the Big Ten championship, the 6-foot-3 left-handed defenseman skated in 15 playoff games for Hartford.

Despite a lack of professional experience, Skjei is close to making the leap to the NHL. He plays a sound positional game and has plenty of offensive upside. It’s hard to see where Skjei fits in with Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, and Kevin Klein all returning. It’s possible that a strong preseason from Skjei could force the Rangers to consider dealing Klein at the height of his value after an uncharacteristic offensive breakthrough last season.

Klein finished 2014-15 with nine goals and 17 assists in 65 regular season games. His plus-24 rating was tied for third on the Rangers. It might be the opportune time to float Klein on the trade block. He has three years remaining on his contract at $2.9 million AAV. If Klein is moved, Skjei and right-handed Diaz could push each other for playing time.

Regardless of whether the Rangers stick with the same six defensemen from last season, 23-year-old right-handed defenseman Dylan McIlrath could figure into the competition for the seventh spot. McIlrath’s has a two-way contract for 2015-16 and will make $600,000.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey