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New York Rangers 2017 Training Camp began today with player physical tests and head coach Alain Vigneault’s media availability. This season’s edition of training camp brings some interesting storylines in the form of roster openings due to the moves made during the offseason. Most notably, the Rangers traded center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes forcing the Rangers to bump Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes up the center depth chart. Oscar Lindberg was claimed by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. Jesper Fast underwent hip surgery in June that is expected to keep him out until late October. And, just as training camp began, J.T. Miller was confirmed to start the season as a center, filling the third line center role.
AV said he's told J.T. Miller he'll begin the year at center. #NYR
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) September 14, 2017
On the back end, Adam Clendening was let go in free agency. Also, Dan Girardi’s contract was bought out, but the Rangers big summer splash—the signing of Kevin Shattenkirk—definitely fills Girardi’s briefly vacant roster spot.
That makes for one currently unoccupied center spot, one wing, and one on defense. Further, the poor play of Nick Holden towards the end of the 2016-2017 season and in the playoffs has led many to speculate that his spot as the Rangers’ sixth defenseman is in jeopardy.
The Rangers tweeted out the list of all invitees to training camp:
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) September 13, 2017
Ahead we will focus on the forward roster openings and investigate some players that are hungry and hopeful to make the big team come October.
Fourth Line Center
The favorite contender is David Desharnais. The Rangers signed him to a 1-year, $1 million contract on July 4th. The 31-year-old center spent the 2016-17 season splitting duties between the Edmonton Oilers and Montréal Canadiens. He had just six goals and eight assists for 14 points between the clubs in 49 total contests during a season marred by a knee injury that cut into the middle of his year. It’s hard to believe the Rangers would sign a player that they didn’t expect to fill a particular role, but he definitely has some competition.
His most direct competition would be from Boo Nieves. Nieves was the Rangers 59th overall pick in 2012 and he played his first full professional season last year with the Hartford Wolf Pack. He tallied six goals and twelve assists in 40 games. He also appeared in one game for the Blueshirts but played a very limited role in it. If Nieves is expecting to make the jump to the NHL, now would be the time to do it with a contested role on the fourth line up for grabs.
Lias Andersson poses an interesting story-line to the fourth line center saga. Andersson was drafted seventh overall just this past summer with the pick the Rangers acquired from the Coyotes for Stepan. Andersson signed his three-year entry level contract with the Rangers back in June and he made his intentions very clear from the get-go:
“I want to compete for a spot,” Andersson said after Thursday’s scrimmage at prospect camp in Tarrytown. “They’re looking for centermen. I think I’m pretty smart out there, I’ve played with men for two years now, and I think my game will fit in pretty good with older players. We’ll see. I’m going to battle for a spot and it’s up to the coaches.”
Earlier this week, the Rangers invited Andrew Desjardins to training camp on a professional tryout (PTO) contract. He had a poor 2016-2017 campaign in which he played 46 games for the Blackhawks, tallying only 1 assist while averaging 9:24 in ice time per game. He could have a surprise resurgence and challenge for the fourth line center spot, but realistically, he’s a veteran presence who the Rangers signed to fulfill the veteran player requirements for pre-season games.
Finally, Steven Fogarty will be in a very similar position to Nieves. Fogarty also played his first full professional season in Hartford last year scoring 7 goals and notching 13 assists in 66 games. Both players, in their second professional year, will definitely be in the fray to compete for the final roster spot. They will need to show the Rangers coaching staff a culmination of their development in order to gain the spot.
Fourth Line Wing
Jesper Fast is expected to return to the lineup in late October. That means a few players will be competing to fill in for roughly 10-12 crucial games to start the season.
The two front-runners would be Malte Strömwall and Scott Kosmachuk. Kosmachuk played 58 games with the Manitoba Moose registering 11 goals and 17 assists. To his advantage, Kosmachuk also played 8 games with the Winnipeg Jets tallying three assists.
The skilled, speedy Strömwall scored two goals and four assists in 44 games last year in Hartford, his first season playing professional hockey in North America. However, his defensive warts could make him a tough sell as Vigneault will likely be looking for a hand just as steady as Fast’s to fill in.
Alternatively, we could see Matt Puempel temporarily move to the right allowing someone like Cole Schneider, the big winger who played last season with the Rochester Americans scoring 24 goals and 39 assists in 71 games, to slide into the left wing role. He also has six games of NHL experience with the Buffalo Sabres. Also, Ryan Gropp could surprise in his first professional season, after spending his last four with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. If Gropp has a good training camp and pre-season, he could force Vigneault’s hand and play his way into the lineup way ahead of schedule.
Clearly, there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Rangers’ two open forward roster spots. My prediction would be that Desharnais does indeed win the spot he was signed for and that Kosmachuk, with his NHL experience, fills in for Fast to start the season. Vigneault values NHL experience and defensive awareness over everything else and he will ultimately go with players that possess those traits, especially in bottom-six roles.
In any case, training camp should be more interesting now than in years past. Stay tuned over the next few weeks as it becomes clearer who will be wearing a Rangers sweater on opening night.