In his Rangers preseason debut, the teenager was certainly hard to miss — from start to finish.
Monday night against the Islanders, Lias Andersson, an 18-year-old center who was the seventh overall pick in the June draft, ended his warm-up at Madison Square Garden by skating in alone on Ondrej Pavelec, drawing the goalie out, then smoothly reaching around him and one-handed, sliding the puck in before gliding to the dressing room.
Later, Andersson assisted on Neal Pionk’s goal at 2:31 in overtime to give the Rangers a 1-0 win over the Islanders.
But Andersson, whose father Niklas, a left wing who played with Henrik Lundqvist in Fro lunda of the Swedish league and then 138 games with the Nordiques, Sharks, Islanders, Predators and Flames from 1992-2001, is more than finesse.
“He competes. He’s not afraid to get in there and battle,” Ryan McDonagh said after practice recently. “I know we’ve had a couple of run-ins and some collisions out there, but he gets up and keeps battling for the puck and he doesn’t back down from anyone.”
Midway through the first period, Andersson, who expected “goose bumps,” was decked in the corner by Cal Clutterbuck, but bounced up to create some chances in front with linemates Pavel Buchnevich and Michael Grabner. And he kept buzzing around the net and crunching Islanders along the boards. In the second, playing four on four, he attempted a risky cross-ice pass, then was sent off for a cross-check along with Scott Mayfield for a slash, penalties that negated an Islanders goal.
It’s been an adjustment for Andersson, who said he “had a tough time early [in the States] learning to play on the smaller ice and getting into the tempo. But the last couple of days here have been very good for me.”
Coach Alain Vigneault used Andersson, who has a shot at making the club at center, a position of need for the Blueshirts since the trade of Derek Stepan to Arizona and the loss of Oscar Lindberg to Las Vegas in the expansion draft, in all situations Monday night: even-strength, killing penalties and on the power play.
Can Andersson crack the roster? There’s a chance, but consider this: The last 18-year-old to make the team was Manny Malhotra, in 1998. J.T. Miller, Anthony Duclair and Michael Del Zotto played at 19.
Vigneault calls Andersson a “legitimate contender . . . I like his skill set, and love the way he interacts, always asking questions.” It reminded him of Mats Zuccarello. “When Marty [St. Louis] came here, Zukie was like a little pest, following him around, staying on the ice, shooting with him. On his teams back home, he’s always been a captain, a leader, a real good personality.”