Eight games into the season is where the tinkering starts for Rangers coach Gerard Gallant.
With the return of Kaapo Kakko from injured reserve, after missing four games with an upper-body injury, Gallant and the Rangers had their top six forwards healthy for the first time in more than a week Friday night as they hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden.
And while Gallant put Kakko back in the spot he was in when he got hurt, on the right wing of the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, the coach did make a significant change when he moved newcomer Barclay Goodrow up on the first line, with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. That meant dropping Alexis Lafreniere — the 20-year-old left wing Gallant said he needed more from after Monday’s game — down to the third line, with center Filip Chytil and winger Sammy Blais.
"I think, on the road trip, you saw they played really well together with ‘Laffy’ down there,’’ Gallant said Thursday of the trio of Lafreniere, Chytil and Blais. "Like I said, if things are going perfect, you keep your four lines rolling. That’s the best news for a coach. But last game (Monday’s 5-1 loss to Calgary) wasn’t good. I think Laffy, Chytil and and ‘Blazer’ had real good success on the road in a couple of those games.’’
The three played together in the last two games of the Rangers’ 4-0 road trip, after Gallant moved Panarin up with Zibanejad, with Strome out of the lineup while battling COVID-19. Lafreniere scored the game-winning goal in Nashville, off a pretty assist from Blais.
Lafreniere, who spoke to reporters Tuesday, the day after Gallant said he needed "more’’ from him, said that day he wasn’t disappointed to be moved off the top line.
"I don’t think so,’’ he said. "I think [Gallant is] just trying different stuff. And we have a lot of good players that can create offense, so I’m trying different lines. I thought I played good with Blazer and Fil too.’’
Lafreniere was asked whether he might be more assertive playing on a line with the 22-year-old Chytil and the 25-year-old Blais, as opposed to when he plays with Zibanejad and Kreider. But he said he doesn’t believe he would be.
"It doesn’t matter, the guys I play with,’’ he said. "I’m always going to bring my ‘A’ game, and I have to work hard, I have to forecheck . . . If I play with Mika and ‘Kreids,’ or if I play with anyone else, I have to do these things to be successful. So I don’t change my game with the guys I play with.’’
Goodrow, a straight-ahead, grinding-style player, played on the line with Panarin and Strome in Monday’s game and those three looked good together. So with Kakko returning Friday, there had been speculation that Gallant might choose to move him to the third line, and keep Goodrow on the second line. Instead, it was Lafreniere who got moved.
Gallant sold the idea of moving Lafreniere down as an opportunity to perhaps spread out the team’s offense throughout the lineup, as opposed to having most of the offense concentrated on the top two forward lines.
"if you’re looking to balance, definitely, yeah,’’ Gallant said. "And like I said that [Lafreniere] enjoyed that the few games that he played down there with (Chytil and Blais). He enjoys playing with whoever he wants. Laffy’s an easygoing kid. He just wants to play well, so he gets disappointed when he doesn’t have a good game, like the other night. He talked about that. And, you know, he was on himself harder than we were.’’