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SportsColumnistsSteve Zipay

Could Rangers seek reinforcements?

Dan Boyle of the Rangers skates against the

Dan Boyle of the Rangers skates against the Chicago Blackhawks at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Granted, there wasn't much space available under the salary cap with which to sign unrestricted free agents. So the Rangers' front office rolled the dice on some low-risk free agents during the summer, and the early returns have been mixed.

Center Matt Lombardi ($1.6 million over two years) was sent down and has re-signed with his Swiss League team and defenseman Michael Kampfer was traded to Florida.

With the team's most expensive free agent, defenseman Dan Boyle, out four to six weeks with a broken right hand, the choice between Matt Hunwick and Michael Kostka to be inserted as a spare isn't totally appealing.

Fortunately, it's a hand, and not, for example, a knee injury for Boyle, 38, which will allow him to skate, and most would prefer an injury early in the season rather than in April.

But Boyle, like any veteran, is vulnerable to other ailments, and it makes sense for management to begin perusing options in the market. That's why some eyebrows were raised when Coyotes general manager Don Maloney was observing at the Garden on Thursday.

On the plus side, free-agent right wing Lee Stempniak has had a very strong start, Ryan Malone should help the power play and 6-4 Kevin Hayes, out of Boston College, appears to be a keeper at center or wing.

But note this: It's the second consecutive offseason that Glen Sather & Co. have opted for two bargain defensemen (Hunwick and Kostka for a total of $1.25 million) when a proven blueliner for that price might have been wiser. Last year, free-agent defensemen Danny Syvret and Aaron Johnson spent all season in Hartford.

Current sixth man John Moore also needs to improve, and the defensive depth in Hartford, except perhaps for Conor Allen, remains fairly thin.

Make no mistake: It's still early, but the salary-cap ceiling isn't changing. When center Derek Stepan returns in early November, the lineup down the middle will improve exponentially.

But as the season progresses, and especially before the trade deadline, don't be shocked if the Rangers are in the hunt for another defenseman and a third-line center -- if they can maneuver it.

By the numbers

Rick Nash has six goals in the first five games. In his career, when he has been off to a similar start in a season, he has scored 40 or more goals twice:

Goals Games Total

2003-04 4 6 41

2007-08 4 6 38

2008-09 5 6 40

Note: In 2011-12, Marian Gaborik, the last Ranger to score more than 40---he had 41---scored four in his first six games.

Line changes

Although head coach Alain Vigneault often matches his lineup depending on the opposition, he's not doing that against the Sharks Sunday. "This is more for our team," Vigneault said Saturday, a day before he will send out four new forward trios and the sixth different lineup in six games.

"I'd like to see us with natural centermen down the middle," including call-up Chris Mueller, said Vigneault, who moved Marty St. Louis back to his natural position, right wing, and installed rookie Kevin Hayes between Rick Nash and former Boston College teammate Chris Kreider. "Kid in a candy store" said Hayes. J.T. Miller, who was re-assigned, will continue to get more seasoning at center in Hartford.

Heard and seen

Left wing Anthony "The Duke" Duclair, 19, will sit Sunday after playing the first five games. "Yes, he's a young player and he needs to play," Vigneault said. "But for this next game, 12 other forwards give us a better chance to win."? Mueller was assigned No. 14, which was last worn by Taylor Pyatt. No player has worn 14 for more than two seasons since Theo Fleury (2000-02). Among the notables who wore 14: Don Murdoch, Mike Allison, Mark Hardy and Brendan Shanahan? Derek Stepan, rehabbing from a broken fibula, asked writers in the MSG press box if he could borrow an I-Phone 5 charger. Nobody had one. "What? Get with it, guys. The 6 is already out. Surprised you even have laptops?" Think captain Ryan McDonagh isn't determined to improve? He remained on the ice more than a half-hour after practice ended Saturday, shooting from the blueline into an empty net.

Prospect watch

Starting with Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Valeri Nichushkin and Vladislav Namestikov, young Russians are making an impact in the NHL. And left wing Pavel Buchnevich, 19, the Rangers' best Russian prospect since Alexei Cherepanov in 2007, is impressing in the KHL, with six goals and 14 points in 19 games. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Buchnevich is expected to play on the top line for Russia in the World Junior Tournament in December. Good chance he will arrive in North America next summer.

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