With five of their eight first-round draft picks from the 2017-2020 drafts now in the lineup, the Rangers’ future appears to be shaping up nicely. But that doesn’t mean coach David Quinn isn’t still trying to win games in the here and now.
So as the Rangers prepared Monday to host games Tuesday and Thursday at Madison Square Garden against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Quinn shook up his forward lines at Monday’s practice by putting Colin Blackwell back on the line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Doing that bumped Kaapo Kakko down to the Kid Line, with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil, and that in turn dropped Vitali Kravtsov, who made his NHL debut in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Buffalo, down to the fourth line.
"Like we’ve mentioned, when you make one move, or want to make one adjustment, your whole lineup changes,’’ Quinn said. "One of the things that we thought is getting Blackwell on that line with Strome and ‘Bread’ [Panarin] gives a little bit of a different look. We've liked the way Kaapo's played. It certainly had nothing to do with Kaapo.’’
Quinn said he wanted Blackwell, who has nine goals and four assists in 27 games, with Strome and Panarin because "he's got a little bit more of a Jesper Fast feel to his game than Kaapo has.’’ Strome and Panarin worked very effectively with Fast last season, and they seemed to click with Blackwell earlier this season.
Quinn said he spoke to Kakko to explain the changes, and the coach added the shifting doesn’t mean Kravtsov will be on the fourth line for the long term, "or even during the whole game.’’
Quinn insisted he was happy with what he’d seen from Kravtsov in his first game Saturday. The 21-year-old played 10 minutes, 45 seconds and finished with three shots on goal, including one with two minutes left in regulation time that could have been the game-winner — had Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark not made a diving save to keep the puck out.
Kravtsov, the No. 9 pick overall in 2018 and the first of three first-round picks by the Rangers that season, scored 16 goals in 49 games in the KHL this season, then had two more, plus two assists, in five playoff games. He spoke to the media Monday after practice — without using an interpreter — and said while he was in the KHL, he tried not to think about joining the Rangers after the playoffs.
"Over there I tried to play every game — I don't think about tomorrow,’’ he said. "I don't think about what I'm going to do after the playoffs.’’
Kravtsov admitted to being nervous for his first NHL game.
"The first game was hard,’’ he said. "I was nervous, a little bit. After I think, the first, second period, I felt much better. It's much faster hockey, and I need to be faster. I know the first game, it's always hard.’’
Blue notes: Quinn said goaltender Igor Shesterkin will start Tuesday, his fourth consecutive start. It will be the first time in his NHL career that Shesterkin has started more than three games in a row . . . Brett Howden practiced with the team for the first time since going on the COVID-19 list March 22.