For Rangers' Rookies, a Timeshare at Center Might be the Answer

As training camp started, New York Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault surprised fans by announcing that J.T. Miller was being moved back to center after having a career-best 56 points playing on Kevin Hayes’ wing last year. But now, thanks to the pre-season performance of a couple teenagers, Vigneault has chosen to put Miller back on the wing.

“With J.T. we wanted to give him a little bit more experience by starting him [at center],” Vigneault said after Monday’s overtime win against Philadelphia. “But right now in my mind, with the performance of a few of our guys down the middle, J.T.’s going to start on the wing.”

While Vigneault didn’t explicitly say who he was talking about, we can make a fair assumption that he’s referring to first-round rookies Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. He’s consistently praised them and, after the Flyers game, also noted that “Chytil and Andersson definitely caught my attention with their skill set, their skating ability, their hockey smarts.”

Both players have also captured the attention of their teammates with impressive training camps. “From what I’ve seen of [Chytil] and Lias in practice, it’s really impressive. If it’s not this year or it’s gonna be next year or whatever, I think both of them have made a strong case for themselves right now,” said Mats Zuccarello.

Given the praise and the Rangers’ lack of center depth, slotting the two youngsters in the final two center spots could be warranted. But even though both Andersson and Chytil have had strong camps, it’s hard to imagine them both getting into the lineup. Having one 18-year-old in an NHL lineup is rare. Having two, at center no less, is a big ask. With veteran David Desharnais having solid camp as well, it seems more likely that the two rookies are actually competing for just one spot.

Ideally, that would be third-line center, where they’ll be able to play with talented wingers and not forced into solely defensive roles. But instead of handing the job to one of the two and sending the other to the AHL or Europe for a year, Vigneault would be wise to let them share the role. A platoon approach third center spot should provide a nice balance for both the rookies’ individual development and the roster as a whole.

By allowing the two youngsters to share ownership of the role, Vigneault would be able to keep both of them fresh over the course of an 82-game season. Neither would be forced into a fourth-line role and, perhaps most advantageously, could be used differently depending on the matchup.

Including pre-season and, just for kicks, ten games in the playoffs, Andersson or Chytil could play over 90 games as a lineup regular. The fact that neither has played more than 42 games in a season makes this a particularly problematic expectation. Jimmy Vesey hit the rookie wall last year after making the jump from college, and we already heard Gordie Clarke surmise that Andersson looked tired after Traverse City. Splitting games would give the two sufficient rest and a nice balance of learning on the ice and in the press box.

Beyond the fatigue factor, though more of an immediate concern for Andersson than Chytil, a fourth-line center role with low-skill wingers also limits the total impact that either player can have. And, as we saw years ago in Manny Malhotra, it could be a precursor to a disappointing career. Both players are better suited, in the short- and long-term, for a role that puts them in position to succeed offensively.

While the rookies are similar in their arrival to New York, they’ve got very different playing styles. Andersson is already being cast in a more defensive role and has a workmanlike mentality that will endear him to fans in the way former captain Ryan Callahan did. His pragmatic two-way game could allow him to be deployed against dangerous second lines (think Anisimov-Kane) while still providing offense, especially if he’s on a line with, say, Rick Nash and Michael Grabner.

Meanwhile, Chytil has shown his own defensive aptitude but oozes creativity and flash in a way that Andersson doesn’t. The subtle plays he makes with the puck are what got him drafted in the first round and, presumably, helped him make this roster. Where he’ll differ from Andersson is that he’ll be better off in an offensive-minded third-line role that gets favorable starts. A line that features Chytil with Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich presents a ton of upside, particularly if they are given high offensive zone start rates against weaker competition.

Zuccarello summed it up well, saying, “Lias is more of a hard-working two-way player. Chytil is highly skilled and can make plays no one else can do. I think we are very lucky to have both, when their time comes.”

The contrasting styles means that, depending on the opponent, Vigneault can get creative in game planning different opponents. At the same time, cutting the schedule in half will give Andersson and Chytil enough time on the ice and in the press box to truly learn the NHL game, on the job, without getting overworked. For Vigneault, that could be the best way to take advantage of the two players’ skill sets and, come April, both will have gas in the tank for a playoff push.

Discussion
  1. AmericanJesus
    If they go back to their European leagues they can't be bought back. If they can hang at the NHL level it's best for their development. They will get to play with and against the best in the world.
    Being one of the best players on the ice at a lower level game in and game out isn't as challenging for these kids. If they are beyond the AHL in their development, putting them there can hurt them.
    None of this mentions that they can have value to a team that suddenly looks just as deep at forward if they can hang, while vastly having improved their defense.

    Thank you! That is one of the questions I've had, can an arrangement be made to bring them back. Sounds like the answer is no.
    Therefore, I doubt the team let's them go back unless either insists, for some reason preferring Europe to Hartford.
    I think Gorton and team are going to talk to everyone (players included) and weigh all their options and everyone's opinions, then decide. This is going to be interesting.
    I think the reason there is not much talk about the kids making us deep at forward is because it really shouldn't be a main factor in the decision.
    I also am not convinced that Andersson, in particular, could not benefit greatly from a little time in Hartford. If it is not challenging and he is dominating, bring him up sooner. How does that hurt? When has giving an 18 y/o a month or so in the A hurt? He's never played in North America.
    Giacomin
    Alright, but that argument also supports the idea that 18 y/o bodies are not ready to compete physically or stamina-wise with peak NHL vets. So why not let them work on their strength and conditioning, plus their skill sets and game instincts at a lower level? If progression is evident and they are chomping at the bit, then call em up. Things will be more settled. Cups are not won in October.

    If they go back to their European leagues they can't be bought back. If they can hang at the NHL level it's best for their development. They will get to play with and against the best in the world.
    Being one of the best players on the ice at a lower level game in and game out isn't as challenging for these kids. If they are beyond the AHL in their development, putting them there can hurt them.
    None of this mentions that they can have value to a team that suddenly looks just as deep at forward if they can hang, while vastly having improved their defense.
    Giacomin
    Alright, but that argument also supports the idea that 18 y/o bodies are not ready to compete physically or stamina-wise with peak NHL vets. So why not let them work on their strength and conditioning, plus their skill sets and game instincts at a lower level? If progression is evident and they are chomping at the bit, then call em up. Things will be more settled. Cups are not won in October.

    No, there is a difference between being ready to compete physically or stamina-wise vs being able to sustain that over 82 games.
    Long live the King
    Yes at 18 we are in some of the best cardio-vascular shape of our lives. But these are professional athletes. NHL vets spend all their focus all year on preparing for an 82 game schedule. 18 year olds do not.

    Alright, but that argument also supports the idea that 18 y/o bodies are not ready to compete physically or stamina-wise with peak NHL vets. So why not let them work on their strength and conditioning, plus their skill sets and game instincts at a lower level? If progression is evident and they are chomping at the bit, then call em up. Things will be more settled. Cups are not won in October.
    Once the schedule gets underway and AV starts limiting practice, etc the kids will be not get the developmental attention that 98% of the 18 y/o prospects do. Even when they practice there will be a lot of game planning and system work, where in a good developmental program the kids get to work on their skills and refine their talents to a much larger degree. Something an 18 y/o needs much more than a 4 year vet.
    Again, I'll trust mgmt, but I doubt they platoon the kids. BTW, it certainly seems like Andersson could use a few months in the A to work on unlocking his offensive potential in NA sized rinks, with a laser-like focus. He won't have to feel like the world's biggest piece of shit if he misses an assignment or if the team loses a few games because he is there to get better, not to win at all costs.
    Giacomin
    Additionally, let's not confuse stamina with strength and maturity. At 18 we are in some of the best cardio-vascular shape of our lives. Our cardio does not need much rest, we don't get tired very easily and we recover at our fastest. It is the pounding from the faster, bigger men (and sticks) that will take a toll on a less mature body. It would seem better to just let our kid's bodies mature a bit more than throw them to the men every other game. Seems like a gimmick that breaks continuity.

    Yes at 18 we are in some of the best cardio-vascular shape of our lives. But these are professional athletes. NHL vets spend all their focus all year on preparing for an 82 game schedule. 18 year olds do not.
    Giacomin
    This is hockey, where team and line chemistry matter and is such a given we hardly discuss it. This isn't your 6th and 7th defenseman, where you want both to get some time, or two aging vets who would benefit from more off days.
    Besides this is not how you handle 18 year old budding stars. Especially when there are great leagues around the world and the AHL, where these kids can play and be coached everyday, as a top line center against top centers.

    Lines change all the time anyways and, with injuries, the number of games in a row playing with the same lineup is pretty limited. I don't think chemistry matters all that much, in this context.
    Nowhere in the rest of the world or AHL would either of these guys see anywhere close to the competition level they'd see in the NHL, especially if they're not used in sheltered, 4th line roles. 45 games against NHL third lines would be far better for them than 60 games against AHLers. Their bodies need to grow, regardless.
    AmericanJesus
    I'm mostly in agreement here, Mike. I think this deployment strategy would really benefit them both in comparison to returning to their European leagues. What happens to their linemates though? You've really hit the nail on the head in saying that they play very different styles of game at center. So much so, that you point towards optimal line combinations for each. How do you see the rest of the line combinations balancing out?
    How do you sort out these two different lineups:
    ???? - ???? - ????
    Vesey - ???? - Buchnevich
    Nash - Andersson - Grabner
    ???? - Desharnais - ????
    ???? - ???? - ????
    Nash - ???? - Grabner
    Vesey - Chytil - Buchnevich
    ???? - Desharnais - ????

    Well assuming everyone is healthy...
    Kreider - Zib - Zucc
    Miller - Hayes - Nash
    Vesey - Chytil - Buch
    Grabs - DD - Fast
    Kreider - Zib - Zucc
    Miller - Hayes - Buch
    Nash - Andersson - Grabner
    Vesey - DD - Fast
    I don't love that second group too much, though I think it'd be hard to score against them. If Vesey can be sound defensively, I'd swap him and Grabs, probably.
    I'm mostly in agreement here, Mike. I think this deployment strategy would really benefit them both in comparison to returning to their European leagues. What happens to their linemates though? You've really hit the nail on the head in saying that they play very different styles of game at center. So much so, that you point towards optimal line combinations for each. How do you see the rest of the line combinations balancing out?
    How do you sort out these two different lineups:
    ???? - ???? - ????
    Vesey - ???? - Buchnevich
    Nash - Andersson - Grabner
    ???? - Desharnais - ????
    ???? - ???? - ????
    Nash - ???? - Grabner
    Vesey - Chytil - Buchnevich
    ???? - Desharnais - ????
    Wow, I hate the idea and can't even wrap my mind around it. It wreaks of a desperate NHL club that is lacking talent up the middle and uses their two promising 18 y/o to makeup for the deficit by forcing them into the league before it is necessary. It does not appear to be motivated by the best interest of each kid's overall development.
    This is hockey, where team and line chemistry matter and is such a given we hardly discuss it. This isn't your 6th and 7th defenseman, where you want both to get some time, or two aging vets who would benefit from more off days.
    Besides this is not how you handle 18 year old budding stars. Especially when there are great leagues around the world and the AHL, where these kids can play and be coached everyday, as a top line center against top centers.
    Additionally, let's not confuse stamina with strength and maturity. At 18 we are in some of the best cardio-vascular shape of our lives. Our cardio does not need much rest, we don't get tired very easily and we recover at our fastest. It is the pounding from the faster, bigger men (and sticks) that will take a toll on a less mature body. It would seem better to just let our kid's bodies mature a bit more than throw them to the men every other game. Seems like a gimmick that breaks continuity.
    I like it! Given inevitable injuries, both could probably find closer to 60 games than 45 since they can both shift to wing. It's still a tough call to keep either up past 9 games. I think they should both get that.
    I've always been a proponent of "sharing" time. What's the big deal if a guy sits out a game here or there to rest, watch, recuperate, refresh, etc ?? Young, old, prime, etc. Its great to see a game. Its great to give your body rest... to rest your mind... to just relax for a bit. Its a long season. We want these guys closing in on 120 with pre, season and playoffs. Theres a lot of wear and tear. Who cares if McDonagh (or Chytil, Lias, etc) sits out for a game everyone month if it means he's not worn out in the playoffs.
    You can even notice Chytil slowing down a bit now. Its been a rough couple of months for him. draft, camp, camp, preseason, camp, injury, camp, preseason... and just imagine whats going on psychologically and emotionally in that 18 year old. (at that age, I was hoping to touch a boob within a year)

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