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.

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