Filip Chytil is visibly bigger than he was a year ago, but that’s not the only difference in the former first-round pick this season.
“I think I feel much more comfortable out there — way more confident,’’ the 6-2, 206-pound Rangers center said when asked to describe what is different about himself in his second NHL season. “It’s a little different when I play center this year. I have different responsibilities. It’s a little different game to play center than play wing, from last year.’’
Chytil has reason to believe that things are turning around for him. He had gone 10 games with a single point until his spectacular goal in Sunday’s 5-1 win over Anaheim. His nine goals are two fewer than the 11 he scored in 75 games last season and fourth-most on the team this season — a feat more impressive considering he started the season with AHL Hartford and wasn’t called up until the 10th game.
Chytil has adapted well in a season that hasn’t gone according to plan. When training camp started, he was first in line to be the No. 2 center behind Mika Zibanejad, but a disappointing preseason got him sent down to Hartford. Rather than sulking, he worked hard and played well, and when Zibanejad suffered an upper-body injury in late October, he came up and produced immediately, scoring in each of his first two games and recording six goals in his first eight games.
Things became a little unsettled when Zibanejad returned and coach David Quinn tried to find the right mixture. With a glut of young centers, Lias Andersson, the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft, was sent to Hartford, eventually became disenchanted and asked the organization for a trade. Brett Howden, who had been playing on the fourth line, moved to the right wing the last couple of games. Quinn said Howden might stay there for a while, even when rookie Kaapo Kakko comes back from a leg injury.
For now, the team is committed to developing Chytil as a center after moving him to the wing most of last season. And he is more comfortable in the middle.
“That’s my spot,’’ he said.
Chytil certainly has improved his work in the defensive zone. He was a minus-22 in 2018-19 and is plus-5 this season. But even though he is working to be a more complete player, he said his 10-game goal drought weighed on him.
“You’re always thinking about it,’’ he said. “You don’t want to, but always, it’s hiding in your head.
“I know if I would score goals and get points, I would help the team more, but I’m trying to focus on my [overall] game,’’ he said. “I’m 20 years old still, so there’s a lot to improve and still be better after every shift, after every game, after every practice. And that’s everything I’m thinking about.’’
The Rangers will open their post-Christmas schedule with back-to-back games Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden and Saturday against the Maple Leafs in Toronto. That game will kick off a four-game trip to Canada.
The Rangers (17-15-4) are eight points behind Carolina (22-13-2) for the second wild- card spot in the Eastern Conference. They entered the three-day Christmas break on a down note with a record of 1-3-1 in their last five games.