GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Call it the annual Blueshirts shuffle. For Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, sorting out forward combinations is front and center at training camp, which begins this weekend.
With little room under the salary cap, Vigneault said Thursday that he expects to open the regular season with 13 forwards and seven defensemen, and he expects intense competition for third- and fourth-line slots. But there's also some question as to how the top two lines will shake out.
"The roles and the lines and the duos that worked last year might not necessarily work this year," Vigneault said. "We didn't get our things [lines] together until after Christmas."
But now that he is more familiar with the returnees and the surroundings, he said: "I'm confident that we should be able to get it done before then."
Vigneault, who mentioned youngsters J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes and veterans Rick Nash and Matthew Lombardi in his 15-minute briefing Thursday, said, "Versatility is a big, big bonus. We're going to start those guys [Miller and Hayes, who also play left wing] in the middle, but we're definitely going to look around . . . Nash on the left side, Nash on the right side, things like that. Lombardi can play wing and center, but I know he's more comfortable at center."
Veteran left wings Ryan Malone and Tanner Glass and right wing Lee Stempniak were brought in as free agents with Lombardi. Right wings Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo, left wing Ryan Haggerty and center Oscar Lindberg appear to be the top prospects in the mix for those jobs. On defense, the top six are locks, and Mike Kostka, Matt Hunwick and Conor Allen are expected to battle for a spot as the lone spare.
Judging by the three camp teams, it appears left wing Chris Kreider will skate with Derek Stepan and Martin St. Louis, not Nash, like last season. Nash is in another group with Derick Brassard -- a former teammate in Columbus -- and Mats Zuccarello.
Notes & quotes: The naming of the franchise's 27th captain won't take place until the end of camp, Vigneault said, as he observes the dynamics of the squad and considers options. Brad Richards, bought out in June, was the de facto captain after Ryan Callahan was sent to Tampa Bay at the March 5 trade deadline. Speculation has long centered on defenseman Ryan McDonagh as the most likely candidate to be chosen as the next captain.