There’s probably no better way to jump right into being a New York Ranger than to play your first game in a Blueshirt in the most important rivalry game of all, against the Islanders, before a raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick’s Day.
That’s how Frank Vatrano made his debut Thursday after being traded to the Rangers on Wednesday from the Florida Panthers in exchange for a fourth-round pick in this summer’s NHL draft.
"I think he's pretty excited,’’ Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said in his pregame media briefing Thursday of Vatrano. "He seemed to be really excited this morning, and looking forward to an opportunity and playing more minutes, obviously.’’
Vatrano had been playing in a fourth-line role with the Panthers, who were leading the Atlantic Division and holding second place in the overall league standings before Thursday’s games. He had 10 goals and nine assists in 49 games for the Panthers, but he figured to get a lot more ice time with the Rangers than he did in Florida.
Before Thursday's game, Gallant wouldn’t pinpoint exactly where Vatrano was slotted in the lineup, but said he would play in right wing on either the second line, with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, or the third line, centered by Filip Chytil. In warmups, Vatrano skated with Panarin and Strome, which bumped Dryden Hunt down to the Chytil line with Barclay Goodrow.
Florida needed to move Vatrano, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, in order to create salary cap space to subsequently make a trade to acquire defenseman Ben Chiarot from Montreal. But at least the Panthers did Vatrano a favor by sending him to the Rangers, as opposed to dispatching him to someplace like Montreal or Arizona or Buffalo, where he’d have no opportunity to play in the postseason. The Rangers were 38-17-5 entering Thursday's game and clearly are headed for the playoffs,
"He's coming to a real good team in New York also, but he's leaving a team that, you know, everybody talks about (as having) a real good chance to win the Cup,’’ Gallant said. "But he seemed to be really excited this morning.’’
Gallant seemed excited, too, to add a player who figured to help fix the problem his team has had with generating goals in 5-on-5 situations. He called the acquisition of Vatrano "positive news.’’
"He's got a great shot. He's quick. He skates, scores some goals,’’ Gallant said. "He hasn't played a whole lot of minutes in Florida with the team they have down there, and you know, we're excited. So it’s good opportunity for us, and a good opportunity for him.’’
Gallant also hinted that acquiring Vatrano might not be the last thing the Rangers do before Monday’s trade deadline. After declaring themselves to be rebuilding in February 2018, the Rangers have built a playoff team for the first time since 2017, and has more available salary cap space than it needs to bring in significant reinforcements.
"I don't think it's surprising to anybody that we're going to make moves, whether it's one move, or whatever else comes down to the (road) here,’’ Gallant said. "It's no big surprise. So, I feel a lot better today. I mean, we added another piece to our team, and he's pretty good hockey player, and can score some goals, and play a good 200-foot game. It definitely makes your team better, for sure.’’
And GM Chris Drury has a cupboard full of prospects at his disposal to give up in exchange for the right players to fortify the roster. Most likely, he isn’t done dealing yet.