GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Jobs still have to be won, of course, and roles clearly defined. And with a little less than three weeks to go before the season opener versus Winnipeg on Oct. 2, there is still time for things to change. But on Friday, in his first media address of training camp, Rangers coach David Quinn was willing to reveal that Pavel Buchnevich will get the first crack at right wing on the Rangers’ first line this season, playing with Mika Zibanejad in the middle and free agent pickup Artemi Panarin on the left.
“I think ‘Buchie’ had a really good last two months of the (2018-19) season, and we certainly want to build off the way his season ended,’’ Quinn said. “And I think he deserves that opportunity.’’
Buchnevich, 24, is entering his fourth season with the Rangers after being picked in the third round, 75th overall, of the 2013 draft. The 6-3, 197-pound Russian had been something of an enigma for much of his first three seasons, frustrating first coach Alain Vigneault and then Quinn last year. But he seemed to turn the corner late last season when he scored nine goals with four assists in his last 17 games to reach 100 points for his career (101 total). Also, his 21 goals cracked the 20-goal plateau for the first time.
A restricted free agent over the summer, Buchnevich signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract July 27, almost four weeks after the Rangers landed Panarin, the top prize on the free agent market, with a seven-year, $81.5 million contract on July 1. At Panarin’s introduction to the New York media, Quinn said he planned on playing him on the same line with Zibanejad, the Rangers’ top center, thus giving the Rangers a dangerous first line that opposing teams will have to worry about.
A truly threatening top line is something the Rangers lacked for most of last season, though Quinn said the trio of Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello was as good a line as there was in the NHL for the three or four weeks before Zuccarello was traded to Dallas in February. Bringing Panarin on board gives the Rangers a legitimate No. 1 line from Day 1, Quinn said, making everyone better.
“When you have a [first] line like that, it certainly lessens the load for the other three lines,” Quinn said. “They take a lot of pressure off the other three lines and we’re hoping they take a lot of pressure off some of our younger players at important, key positions.’’
With Panarin taking over as Zibanejad’s new left wing, Kreider (who is entering the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer) will drop to the second line. Who the second-line center will be is something that will be decided in training camp, with Filip Chytil, 20, Lias Andersson, 20, Brett Howden, 21, and Ryan Strome, 26, among those vying for that position. Quinn said he wants to keep Chytil and Andersson, the team’s two first-round picks in the 2017 draft, in the middle, and suggested Strome, who played a lot of wing last season, likely will start the season at wing.
With Buchnevich getting the first crack at playing on the top line, that means rookies Kaapo Kakko, the second overall pick in this summer’s draft, and Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth overall pick in the 2018 draft, will start out lower in the lineup. Both players, who played in the Finnish and Russian pro leagues, respectively, last season, will need to prove they deserve to play higher in the lineup, Quinn said.