Now, in the final week of the season, and with the playoffs out of reach, it is time for the experimenting to begin for the Rangers.
Of course, having had the youngest roster in the league for most of the season, coach David Quinn had to be somewhat creative all season long with how he deployed his younger players within the lineup. But now that the results are no longer critical to the team’s chase for a playoff spot, Quinn can feel free to be even more creative.
"Yeah, if It's gonna help us win the game, we'll experiment, and try anything,’’ Quinn said after Monday’s morning skate, as his team prepared to take on the Washington Capitals at the Garden Monday night. "You know that with as many young players as we have, I think you're always looking for different combinations, because there's just so much uncertainty on… who can play with who. And I think you're going to try different things.’’
Chris Kreider’s lower body injury and Brett Howden’s broken foot opened a couple spots for Quinn to get prospect Morgan Barron into the lineup, as well as get another look at Julien Gauthier, who sat out 14 straight games before being playing against the Islanders Saturday night.
And with Artemi Panarin missing Monday’s skate for what Quinn said were "maintenance’’ reasons, the coach got a chance to move some people around on his power play units, including putting together a second man-up group that featured five players all 21 or younger.
Vitali Kravtsov, 21, Filip Chytil, 21, Kaapo Kakko, 20, Alexis Lafreniere, 19, and point man Zac Jones, 20, got to work together in the morning, and were expected to be together as a unit Monday. Quinn also has the option, over the final four games of the season, of giving some of the young players a look with the first power play unit, as he did late in Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Islanders, when he used Kakko on the first unit for a shift.
"Yeah, that'll be, probably, a game-by-game decision,’’ he said of the distribution of first-power play time. "And even within the game, make those types of decisions. We're open for anything right now.’’
The experimenting extends beyond just who plays on the power play. Against the Capitals, Quinn changed up his forward lines, moving Panarin to the left side of the Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich line, and putting Lafreniere on the left of a second line, with Ryan Strome and Kakko. Kravtsov was put on the left of a third line, with Chytil and Colin Blackwell.
When the Rangers signed Panarin as a free agent in the summer of 2019, Quinn’s original intention had been to play he and Zibanejad together. But he soon split the two up, and Panarin found great chemistry with Strome, while Zibanejad seemed to continue to have success between Kreider and Buchnevich. Now, apparently, is as good a time as any to try Panarin and Zibanejad together again, to see what that looks like.
And as far as the younger players, Quinn said these final games, against Washington (Monday and Wednesday) and Boston (Thursday and Saturday) will be good for their continued development.
"We're playing teams that are heavy, playoff-type teams, and it gives them a chance to really get a better gauge of what the NHL is all about, and the teams you're gonna have to play to win Stanley Cups,’’ he said. "These games are helpful for them.’’
Kakko, though, said he isn’t looking at these final games and dreaming of what the possibilities could be for he and the other young guns next season and beyond.
"No, not yet,’’ he said. "We have four games left, so just, enjoy your game and then just keep playing. That's it.’’