Rangers center Andrew Copp looks on against the Penguins in...

Rangers center Andrew Copp looks on against the Penguins in the second period of an NHL game at Madison Square Garden on Friday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

PITTSBURGH — Under normal circumstances, an injury to one of your team’s top players is a bad thing. But for Gerard Gallant, losing second-line center Ryan Strome to what  the Rangers coach believes will be a short-term lower-body injury presents an opportunity to find out some things about his roster.

Specifically, the injury to Strome affords Gallant the chance to take a look at newly acquired forward Andrew Copp at the center position, something Gallant needed to do at some point before the end of the regular season. On Tuesday, when the Rangers took on the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time in five days, Gallant had Copp sliding over from the right wing to play in Strome’s spot at center on the second line, with Artemi Panarin on the left and Dryden Hunt on the right.

“Like I said, he can play center,’’ Gallant said at the morning skate of Copp. “He prefers center. He'll play either wing, so they're all over the place and we're just trying to get the lineup in that's best suited for the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight.’’

Copp, 27, was acquired at the trade deadline last week from the Winnipeg Jets, along with a sixth-round draft pick in 2023 for forward Morgan Barron and two conditional second-round picks. The first of the two conditional picks is the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2022 — which upgrades to a first-rounder in 2022 if the Rangers get to the Eastern Conference finals and Copp plays in half their playoff games — and the second will be either the St. Louis Blues' second-rounder in 2022 (acquired in the Pavel Buchnevich trade last summer) or the Rangers’ own second-rounder in 2023.

Copp said after Sunday’s 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden that he sees himself as a center who can play wing, rather than a winger who can play center. But when Strome left that game after the first period and Gallant tried Copp in the middle for the second period, he didn’t like how well it was working out. So he shifted Copp back to right wing and moved the versatile Barclay Goodrow in between Copp and Panarin.

Against the Penguins, though, Gallant decided to try the 6-1, 206-pound Copp in the middle again. Copp is strong on faceoffs, winning 54% of his draws this season and 15 of 28 (53.6%) in his first three games with the Rangers. One of those 15 wins set up a power play goal by Chris Kreider in Copp’s first game with the team, the 7-4 loss March 22 in New Jersey.

“I feel like I can dictate pace of play a little bit more in the middle,’’ Copp said Tuesday morning of the difference between playing center and wing. “And part of the learning curve, I think, is understanding -- like I was doing a little bit too much thinking last game when I was in the middle… it wasn't coming as seamlessly as a different system did for seven years for me [in Winnipeg].’’

With 15 games remaining in the regular season after Tuesday, Gallant is going to need to experiment some to see which players make the most sense to be in the lineup and in which spots. If everyone is healthy, it’s unlikely the coach would deviate from having Strome at center next to Panarin in the playoffs. But looking ahead, Strome is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and if he should decide to leave, then the Rangers would need a new second-line center.

If Copp, who is also scheduled to be a UFA this summer, looks good filling in for Strome in the game or two, he could be an option for general manager Chris Drury to consider as a replacement for Strome next season. And as far as the playoffs are concerned, if Gallant likes what he sees from Copp at center, there’s always the option of dropping him down to the third line, and moving Filip Chytil to the wing.

More Rangers


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months