Chris Drury has had a great couple of weeks.
The Rangers’ president and general manager had a few challenges when the summer began, and during the last two weeks, he met them.
It started when he traded goaltender Alexandar Georgiev to the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche at the draft and continued a week later when he signed center Vincent Trocheck away from the Carolina Hurricanes on the first day of free agency.
He signed a backup goaltender in former Islander Jaroslav Halak to replace Georgiev, freed up some salary- cap space by trading defenseman Patrik Nemeth to the Arizona Coyotes, added a third goaltender in the form of Louis Domingue, and replaced departed fourth-line center Kevin Rooney with a cheaper version in Ryan Carpenter.
About the only thing left to do for Drury is to re-sign forward Kaapo Kakko, which shouldn’t be a problem. The Rangers have about $3.2 million available under the salary cap to fit Kakko, a restricted free agent, and a sixth defenseman. Presuming Kakko comes in at about the $2.3 million that forward Filip Chytil makes, that would leave $900,000 or so for the defenseman.
That would be just enough to fit one of the young, in-house candidates for the sixth defenseman job: Libor Hajek, Zac Jones, Matthew Robertson or the righthanded-shooting Nils Lundkvist. There’s an outside chance that Drury could sign a veteran (Andy Greene?) to a cheap deal to compete for the spot, but that seems unnecessary and unlikely.
So once Kakko re-signs, the roster appears to be set going into training camp. There’s no room to bring back bottom-six forward Tyler Motte, who remains unsigned, but Sammy Blais will be returning from his ACL injury and Drury brought back 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov, who should make the opening- night roster this season.
In his conference call with reporters after he signed Trocheck, Drury was asked if he envisions third-year forward Alexis Lafrenière shifting from left wing to right wing in order to move into the top six forwards. He declined to answer, saying that will be something coach Gerard Gallant will decide.
“I don’t think it’s my place to be interjecting where I think guys should go,’’ he said. “But I do know we’ve got a lot of good options. We’ve got a lot of good players up front. I know [Gallant] enjoys tinkering with things and figuring it out and pushing buttons, and he was great at it last year. So I’m sure he’ll have some good ideas this year as well.’’
Lafrenière, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, had 19 goals last season and looks poised to take another step forward in 2022-23, but he’s still a left wing and still behind Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider on the depth chart at that position. So unless Gallant decides to move Panarin to the right side and play him on a stacked first line with Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, Lafrenière will have to shift to right wing to play in the top six.
Presuming Gallant at least starts with Kreider and Zibanejad together on the first line and Panarin on the second line with Trocheck, Lafrenière likely would play with Kreider and Zibanejad and Kakko would play with Panarin and Trocheck. That would leave Chytil on the third line, probably between Barclay Goodrow and Kravtsov, with the fourth line composed of Blais, Carpenter and either Ryan Reaves or Dryden Hunt.
That alignment would completely blow up the Kid Line of Lafrenière, Chytil and Kakko, the Rangers’ most dynamic trio in the playoffs. But Gallant never seemed to love that line as much as everyone else did, and he famously scratched Kakko in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.