TORONTO — There’s a fable that says "slow and steady wins the race.’’ And while one wouldn’t call Rangers center Kevin Rooney "slow,’’ the 28-year-old, fourth-year NHLer could most definitely be called ‘’steady.’’
"I like the way he plays,’’ Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said of Rooney at Monday’s morning skate before the Rangers took on the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He competes, he plays hard, and he’s one of those guys that .
"You need a mix on your team and he’s one of those ‘mix’ guys,’’ Gallant said. "We talk about skill a lot, but he’s one of the guys that’s not overly skilled. But he competes hard, he plays hard, he blocks shots. He does all the things coaches like.’’
With Ryan Strome (COVID protocol) and Kaapo Kakko (on injured reserve with an upper- body injury) unavailable Monday, Gallant had to make some adjustments within his lineup. For the second straight game, Filip Chytil moved up to fill Strome’s spot as the second-line center, and Barclay Goodrow also moved up to that line to fill Kakko’s spot on right wing.
Rooney, who had been the fourth-line center in each of the first three games, moved up to the third line, where he skated between big-bodied wingers Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier.
"Nothing really changes,’’ Rooney said of his lineup promotion. "For me, I’ve just got to continue to grow my game. Everybody has a role on this team, and I know we’re missing some guys, so we’re going to need some other guys to step up.’’
The 6-2, 190-pound Rooney was an under-the-radar signing by the Rangers before the 2020-21 season, as the team sought to improve its penalty killing. And he certainly helped there, as the Rangers’ shorthanded unit improved to 10th overall in the 31-team league, with an 82.3% kill rate, after being 23rd in 2019-20 with a 77.4% kill rate.
He didn’t just kill penalties, though. He also scored a career-high eight goals, playing in 54 of the 56 games. Two of his goals were shorthanded, as the Rangers were third in the league with eight shorthanded goals.
"I just try to get better every season,’’ Rooney said when asked about his own personal goals for the season. "I really felt like I’ve done that since I started my pro career in the American League. and every year I really felt like I’ve taken the next step.’’
This year Rooney focused on trying to improve his faceoff percentage. After winning 49.3% and 47% of his faceoffs in the two seasons with the Devils before he joined the Rangers, his win rate slid to 45% last season. But in the first three games this season, he won 18 of 31 draws (58.1%).
"That’s something that was a really big emphasis for me this summer and I want to stay on it, stay on the video and stay on, working with the coaches after practice,’’ Rooney said. "I know it’s something that the team needs, and hopefully I can continue to be good in that role that I have, and try to give a little bit more offensively as well.’’
Rooney was asked to describe the Rangers’ personality this season.
"I think we’re fast and we’re hard on pucks,’’ he said. "We’re definitely a little bit more physical this year . . . I know it’s early in the year, and we’re interested to see where it takes us.’’