Most of the preseason intrigue with the Rangers, who were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the playoffs last spring, involves seeing whether younger players can grab lower-line roles on offense and sixth or seventh spots on defense.
If a younger corps of forwards such as Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider can prosper in expanded roles will be determined not in the six exhibition games but during the regular season, which begins Oct. 5.
Some key issues as the Rangers open training camp:
1. Who will center the third and fourth lines?
At this point, it’s fair to wonder if general manager Jeff Gorton should have sent a draft pick to Las Vegas to protect Oscar Lindberg from the expansion draft. Zibanejad and Hayes are moving up to the No. 1 and 2 slots, but the third-line pivot is to be determined. Miller, who has mostly played wing, will start camp at center. David Desharnais, a free agent who played for the Canadiens, could drop down to the fourth spot, where he may be better suited. Otherwise, Cristoval Nieves and No. 7 overall pick Lias Andersson are the main competitors for the final spot.
2. Will a youngster be the sixth or seventh defenseman?
You don’t need a spreadsheet to figure out Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith are the top four defensemen. Veteran Marc Staal, according to head coach Alain Vigneault, will battle for ice time. Nick Holden will compete for the third pair or seventh defenseman with righty Anthony D’Angelo, 21, acquired from Arizona in the Derek Stepan/Antti Raanta trade. Neal Pionk, a free-agent signee from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, could make the cut.
3. Any early signs Ondrej Pavelec can provide quality backup for Henrik Lundqvist?
Vigneault said Thursday that Lundqvist looks “lighter and younger” and that Pavelec, 30, is motivated after some disappointing seasons. “I think we got him at the right time in his career,” Vigneault said. There’s not much choice here: Brandon Halverson, Chris Nell and Alexandar Georgiev, with no NHL experience, are in the mix for the top job with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack.
4. Who’s on the power play and penalty kill?
Shattenkirk, who was signed to a four-year contract, will quarterback the man-advantage. Jesper Fast (hip surgery in June), a top penalty killer, isn’t expected to be ready until November. Will rising star Brady Skjei get more minutes on the power play? Will former Blackhawk Andrew Desjardins, 31, brought in on a tryout, start the season as an experienced shorthanded skater?
With alternate captains Stepan (traded) and Dan Girardi (bought out), who will fill the leadership group roles behind captain McDonagh? Lundqvist, Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash already lead by example. Zuccarello seems ready for an “A”. Are Kreider and Miller ready for more responsibility? Will sophomores Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich take the next step as regular, contributing forwards?