By Sean Hartnett
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For the time being, the Rangers will have to press on without power forward Chris Kreider.
It’s unclear how long the power forward will be unavailable after a blood clot was discovered in his right arm. The Rangers have not specified a timetable and it is unknown whether Kreider will require surgery.
The uncertain length of Kreider’s absence has opened the door for 22-year-old rookie forward Vinni Lettieri to show his stuff at the NHL level. Lettieri has impressed Rangers management, minor league coaches and scouts in the short time since signing with the Blueshirts as a free agent in March following four years at the University of Minnesota.
What stands out among Lettieri’s skill set is an ability to shoot first, shoot often, and shoot from anywhere.
Lettieri took part in 31 games for AHL Hartford, recording 12 goals and nine assists. He skated at right wing on the fourth line during Thursday’s practice alongside Paul Carey and Boo Nieves. Lettieri, who hails from Excelsior, Minnesota, was also featured on the second power play unit in Kreider’s vacant spot alongside J.T. Miller, Jimmy Vesey, Ryan McDonagh and David Desharnais.
“It’s very exciting and I’m happy to be here,” Lettieri said. “Seriously, this was the best Christmas present yet. So, that’s good.”
So how can he make his mark in the NHL?
“Just take what I was doing in Hartford. Don’t change anything,” Lettieri said. “We’ve got a lot of good players around me. So, I trust in their ability to help me out and I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and keep shooting the puck.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to showcase my skill,” he added. “I’ve obviously been waiting for this moment for a long time. I can’t come to a better organization than this. I’m just really grateful for all my Hartford teammates for helping me out, the coaching staff, all the players down there, medical, training — everything down there. They’ve been helping me a lot to get me ready for this moment.”
Lettieri repeatedly stated his desire to exhibit a shoot-first mentality and have a nose for the net. During Alain Vigneault’s five seasons behind the Madison Square Garden home bench, the makeup of the Rangers’ most skilled players could be described as pass-first and unselfish. So, there’s certainly a need for a volume shooter of Lettieri’s ilk. Vigneault said he envisions Lettieri getting a solid supply of power play minutes.
“I think right now, the combination of him being a righty and him being a right-hander that likes to shoot the puck — we don’t have a lot of those on our team, as far as guys with that right-handed possibility,” Vigneault said. “He’s been doing that in Hartford. I’ve tried some other guys. I want to try Vinni. It’s as simple as that.”
Vigneault has been dreaming about a shooter for some time.
“I think it would be an asset. We’ve been able to score a good percentage on a low ratio of shots. We don’t want to take (away) that instinct, because the game happens so quick, you don’t want to take that away,” Vigneault said. “So, we’ve got a lot of guys, at a lot of times, who think pass first. Probably, if you’d ask the coaches and some of the players, sometimes the coaches would like the crew to shoot more and have a little bit more shoot-first mentality.
“At the same time, you’re always walking that fine line there,” Vigneault continued. “In Vinni’s case, he’s a guy that from my understanding and what I remember from him in camp and talking to the coaches in Hartford, he’s a shoot-first mentality. Since we don’t have any right-handed shots on that second power play unit, it’s something I feel that we need to see, and we’ll see what he can do.”
When he makes his debut on Friday at Detroit, Lettieri will be the first Ranger to wear the number 95, which signifies his birth year.
Only a handful of Rangers have worn jerseys above the number 90. Wayne Gretzky wore his iconic and now league-wide retired 99 in his final three professional seasons as a member of the Blueshirts. Petr Nedved donned 93 between 1998 and 2004. Michael Nylander enjoyed two productive seasons wearing 92. Mika Zibanejad is currently wearing 93.
No. 91 – Markus Naslund (2008-09), Evgeny Grachev (2010-11)
No. 92 – Michael Nylander (2005-07)
No. 93 – Petr Nedved (1998-2004), Keith Yandle (2015-16), Mika Zibanejad (2016-current)
No. 94 – Derek Boogaard (2010)
No. 96 – Emerson Etem (2015-16)
No. 97 – Matt Gilroy (2009-11, 2013)
No. 99 – Wayne Gretzky (1996-99)
Rangers fans have been eager to see Lettieri get his chance to make an impression in the NHL. His robust play in the preseason and in Hartford fast-tracked him to show. He’s been given his shot, now he’s got to make it count.
With Kreider and Jesper Fast (quad injury) missing from the lineup, the Rangers’ depth will continue to be tested. No one player can replace Kreider’s value. Filling the goal-getting, big-bodied play and ability to back off the defense that he brings with his straight-line speed isn’t an easy fix. Vigneault mentioned Vesey as a candidate to assume an increased role.
“There’s other opportunities for other guys to get a big role and get more ice time,” Vigneault said. “Somebody’s got to step up to the plate. I’m thinking Jimmy Vesey has been wanting more ice time, a left winger like Kreids.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey