Through all the ups and downs the young Rangers have gone through so far this season, one thing has remained constant: Chris Kreider has been, and remains, a total pro.
All the guy does is what the team needs him to do. And for the nine games preceding Wednesday’s contest at Madison Square Garden against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, the Rangers have needed Kreider to ride shotgun on the team’s second line with youngsters Filip Chytil and Pavel Buchnevich.
It’s a role that requires a little net-front presence, some toughness, some veteran wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, some speed, skill and goal-scoring ability. Kreider, 28 and the alternate captain, has delivered it all. And the line has produced offensively. Chytil has six goals and two assists in the nine games the trio has been together, Kreider has three goals and two assists and Buchnevich has eight assists.
“Obviously, he brings a dimension to that line, with speed and physicality, and his willingness to go to the net; things of that nature,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said when asked what Kreider’s role is in playing alongside Chytil, 20, and Buchnevich, 24. “But obviously, he's a guy, also, that, as we've talked about before, he's a guy that enjoys helping young players. And I think he's very helpful with ‘Fil’ and even ‘Buchie.’’’
The Rangers still are rebuilding, though they certainly accelerated the process this summer when they traded for defenseman Jacob Trouba, drafted Kaapo Kakko and signed Artemi Panarin. At the moment, they are the youngest team in the league, with seven players on the roster 21 or younger.
Kreider, who is in the final year of his contract and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, is an odds-on favorite to be dealt away at the February trade deadline. But when he’s asked about that, he stubbornly refuses to speculate about his future and instead simply talks about the team, the team, the team. The 6-3, 217-pound left wing has been a model veteran for Quinn’s young group and worked out and trained with several of the youngsters this summer, including Chytil and Brett Howden. He generally is revered by the kids in the locker room.
Kreider entered Wednesday with five goals and five assists in the Rangers’ first 18 games, and he seemed to really come alive after he was put together with Chytil and Buchnevich after the team lost its No. 1 center, Mika Zibanejad, to an upper-body injury.
“A rising tide lifts all ships,’’ Kreider said of his uptick in offensive production. “I think when our team plays well, all of our forwards get more opportunities, especially [with me] being a guy who's around the net. Pucks tend to get to the net a little more, so you get a few more opportunities. So, when the team plays well, everyone benefits from that.’’
Zibanejad hasn’t played since getting injured on a hit by Boston’s Patrice Bergeron on Oct. 27. But the team rallied without him and is 5-3-1 in his absence entering Wednesday night. Zibanejad skated with the team in practice Tuesday and appears ready to return soon. Changes will have to be made to fit him back into the lineup when he returns, but with or without Zibanejad, Kreider’s focus remains on the Rangers playing true to their system and doing the right things.
“I think any of the success we've had [without Zibanejad] is the games where we've leaned on the structure, and had that willingness, and commitment to play good solid defensive, disciplined hockey,’’ Kreider said. “And when we get away from that, we don't have success, regardless of who's in our lineup or not. Obviously, we miss Mika, because of everything he brings to the table. But… with him in the lineup, [or] without him in the lineup, we need to play the right way. Or else we're not going to have success.’’