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SportsColumnistsColin Stephenson

Rangers getting the most out of players during rebuilding season

Mika Zibanejad has been playing top flight hockey

Mika Zibanejad has been playing top flight hockey as the Rangers first-line center.   Credit: Jim McIsaac

Saturday’s home game against the Florida Panthers was the Rangers’ 20th of the season, meaning the Blueshirts have roughly completed a quarter of their schedule. That’s probably enough of a sample size to go ahead and make some reasonable judgments, and first-year coach David Quinn can begin to settle on some things.

First off, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes are getting the job done as the top two centers and rookie Brett Howden has proven himself to be legit in making the team, then quickly moving up from fourth line center to third. Quinn has done a good job holding players accountable for their play. He’s managed his roster pretty well, sitting players out when they aren’t performing and generally getting good results when those players get back in. Case in point, Vladislav Namestnikov, who wasn’t good in the preseason, started the season on the fourth line, sat out the second game, and has generally picked his game up ever since.

“I knew, at training camp that I needed to be better, and play better,’’ Namestnikov admitted recently. “And I sat out and thought about it and talked to the coach about what I needed to do better, and from that point, I just know what he expects from me and just go out there and try to be myself.’’

Specifically, Namestnikov said, he needed to be “more being engaged in battles and winning those 50-50s in all areas of the ice.’’ Entering Saturday’s game, Namestnikov had a goal and six assists in 18 games — not overwhelming statistics, to be sure — but he had played with enough energy that Quinn has consistently rewarded him with a top-six role. Quinn has also gotten production from defenseman Tony DeAngelo, who sat out six straight games and returned with a goal and an assist and has been a solid defender since. Pavel Buchnevich, who had been something of an enigma, responded to a recent two-game benching with top shelf play before a broken thumb last weekend sidelined him.

Overall, the Rangers, while admittedly rebuilding, expected to be competitive during the process. A quarter of the way through the schedule, they’ve been that. Assuming they stay relatively healthy, should win enough along the way to keep things interesting.

Andersson up and running

The only points scored by players on the fourth line this season have been a goal and an assist by Filip Chytil — and both of those points came while he was playing on the power play, and not on the fourth line. Chytil had a total of two goals and three assists going into Saturday night's game. Cody McLeod and Vinni Lettieri, who have both played exclusively on the fourth line when they’ve been in the lineup, are both scoreless and minus players, averaging 7:14 and 9:14 ice time per game, respectively.

So playing on the fourth line hasn’t exactly been a ticket to stardom this season. But rookie Lias Andersson, who spent the first month or so of the season in Hartford, won’t complain about being used as a fourth line center for the time being.

“Obviously, you want to play as much as you can, but we’ve got very good players up here, so I’m just very happy that I’m up here now and I’m going to work for every second I get,’’ said Andersson, who played 9:45 as the fourth line center against the Islanders. “We have a good team now, and we’re on a roll, so you can’t really complain about ice time and that stuff, when we’re playing this good.’’

Andersson, who has played center and both left and right wing since his recall, moved out of the hotel Friday and into the apartment complex where most of the young Rangers are living this season, which ought to be an indicator that he’ll be up with the Rangers for a while.

But, Andersson isn’t taking any chances. He still has an apartment in Hartford, meaning for now the 20-year-old has two homes. He’s hoping the Rangers will eventually give him the green light to give up his Hartford pad.

Claesson glad for the chance

Freddie Claesson sat out the first three games of the season, then played four solid games before an injury took him out of the lineup for nine games. Since stepping back in, he’s been solid again, and scored his first goal as a Ranger — and the fifth of his career — on Thursday against the Islanders.

“Oh, that was unreal. I loved it,’’ he said of the goal that  came at 5:35 of the first period and gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead. “It felt great. I don’t score that much, so it felt unreal.’’

Claesson, who turns 26 on Nov. 24, is playing desperate hockey these days. Let go by Ottawa after last season, he signed a one-year, bargain basement $700,000 deal with the Rangers to be a spare defenseman. He was just trying to stay in the NHL, and now, he’d like to show he deserves to stay a little longer.

“For me, I’m trying to prove to them, so I’ve got a job next year, here,’’ he said. “So I’ve got to show everything I’ve got. In practices, I’ve got to go hard — and, most importantly games — but I’m trying to prove to them who I am, and that they can count on me.’’

New York Sports