GREENBURGH, N.Y. — After the Rangers’ practice on Sunday, coach David Quinn spoke about the need to be patient, and about how he had to keep reminding himself that the season was only three games old, and maybe making changes might be premature.
And then, after a day off on Monday, Quinn made changes on Tuesday.
Brett Howden, the 21-year-old second-year center, was promoted to the second line Tuesday, and Quinn said he’ll be in that role, playing between left wing Chris Kreider and right wing Kaapo Kakko, when the Rangers travel to Newark to face the Devils on Thursday. Brendan Smith, the defenseman who has played on the fourth line in each of the first three games, also is being promoted. He will skate at left wing on the third line, with center Ryan Strome and right wing Jesper Fast.
“I didn't love what I saw on that line,’’ Quinn said when asked why he bumped Howden up to the second line. “I think the line balance might be a little bit better. So, I thought ‘Howds’ had a decent night the other night (Saturday, in the 4-1 loss to Edmonton).’’
Interestingly, Strome, who had been the second line center in the first three games, had his first point of the season, getting the assist on Kakko’s first period goal that gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Strome was one of three Rangers players — and the only forward — to finish the game with a plus rating (+1). But his ice time (14:36) was the least of anyone in the top two lines and only the fourth line and Brendan Lemieux played less than Strome did.
Second-line center has been a key question for Quinn since the beginning of training camp. With the first line or Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich set, the question always was who would center the second line, between Kreider and Kakko. Twenty-year-old Filip Chytil got the first look there in the preseason, but he apparently didn’t do well enough to make the roster, and was assigned to AHL Hartford, as Quinn turned to Strome to start the season. Now, the second-year coach is giving Howden a turn.
“Of the three games we've played, I think (Howden)'s gotten better throughout them,’’ Quinn said. “I liked what I saw at practice today. I think he's playing with a little bit more pace, and a little more physicality.
“He’s just got to continue to do the things he capable of doing,’’ Quinn continued. “He’s got to be on the right side of people, he's got to play fast, he's got to get to the net. (And) be responsible defensively.’’
Smith moves into the spot that had been occupied by Lemieux, who returned to practice Tuesday after missing Sunday’s practice with the flu. Lemieux took a crucial interference penalty in the third period Saturday, with the score tied, 1-1. Edmonton scored on the ensuing power play to take the lead and went on to win.
Quinn said he hadn’t decided who would make up the fourth line on Thursday. Lemieux rotated in on the fourth line Tuesday with Lias Andersson, Greg McKegg and Micheal Haley. Haley has been a healthy scratch in each of the first three games.
Notes & quotes: Zibanejad (flu), Kreider (lower body soreness) and Marc Staal (maintenance) all returned to practice after missing Sunday.