By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has come away impressed with the potential scoring punch of the newly-formed line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.
Excited by the trio’s instant chemistry, speed and natural skill, Vigneault plans to test out his experiment in at least one of the Blueshirts’ two preseason games this week.
“If they are the way they were in practice, they’re going to be a handful,” Vigneault said following Sunday’s practice. “They were by far the best line and the three best players today. Both offensively and defensively they made a lot of things happen. They’re definitely a line we’re going to keep together and probably will be playing together in one of the next two games. They were excellent, all three of them used their skill, their speed and made some things happen offensively — so it was fun to watch.”
The Rangers host the Islanders in Tuesday’s preseason opener, followed by a visit from the Devils on Thursday. Kreider, Zibanejad and Buchnevich will skate on the first line against the Isles. What could make the line hard for opponents to handle is its sheer speed and playmaking.
Full Tuesday lines vs. NYI:
Forward lines: Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich, Pirri-Jooris-Jensen, Kovacs-Hrivik-Stromwall, Glass-Lapierre-Brown
Defensive pairs: Staal-Clendening, Skjei-Girardi, Bodie-McIlrath
Goaltenders: Hellberg, Skapski
Vigneault, general manager Jeff Gorton and key members of the Blueshirts’ scouting staff have raved all summer about Zibanejad’s creativity, two-way effectiveness and overall potential for growth. Over the previous three seasons, the 23-year-old center averaged 1.73 points per 60 minutes in even-strength situations. That’s equal to Pavel Datsyuk and just below Claude Giroux (1.76) and Derick Brassard (1.75). Zibanejad is already a superior two-way player compared to Brassard. He is stronger, tougher to play against and has the potential to soon surpass the ex-Ranger’s offensive output.
“He’s a young player that our scouting staff and our management all felt was on the upswing,” Vigneault said last Thursday. “He’s been in Ottawa for a few years. He’s been able to play power play, penalty killing, five-on-five. The speed is there, the skill is there, the youth is there.”
Buchnevich is not your average 21-year-old rookie. The 6-foot-1 forward recorded strong numbers in the KHL, collecting 87 points, including 37 goals, over four seasons. He was able to increase his goal, assist and point totals each season and his KHL statistics compare favorably to established NHL stars Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin. What stands out about Buchnevich’s game is his quick thinking and intelligent decisions under pressure.
“He’s an intense player,” Rangers European scout Vladimir Lutchenko said of Buchnevich back in 2015. “He has skated well, has been strong on the puck and possesses good vision. He makes quick, smart decisions with the puck and makes plays with his creative passes. He has great playmaking ability. He has the ability to control the game and to make quick decisions with the puck while in traffic.”
At 25, Kreider is the elder statesman of the trio and appears closer than ever to fully realizing his high-ceiling potential. We all know about his jaw-dropping speed, powerful shot and muscular physique. The time has come this season for Kreider to put it all together by being a consistent force on a nightly basis. While he went through some lean stretches last season, he finished the regular season on a hot streak by collecting 11 points in the final 12 games.
“I haven’t seen a guy with his speed, his shot power, the way he trains, the way he works out,” Rick Nash said. “I’ve never seen a guy like him. He’s got all the tools to be a star.”
Given this line’s speed, skill and quick thinking, it could create all kinds of scoring chances and be a nightmare for opposing coaches to slow down.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey