GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Rangers won’t practice for the first time until Saturday, but coach Alain Vigneault already has made some decisions.
On Thursday, in his first briefing as he begins his fifth season in New York, Vigneault said that winger J.T. Miller will play center — a position in transition — in training camp and sometime during the season. Defenseman Marc Staal, who struggled last season, will be in a “legit fight” for ice time, a rarity for the 10-year veteran, Vigneault said, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who looks “lighter and younger,” won’t have a ceiling on starts, as has been discussed previously.
It seemed clear that, at least in the short term, the club won’t be hunting outside the organization to replace former No. 1 center Derek Stepan, who was traded to Arizona, and that internal competition will decide the fits for the spots in the middle of the third and fourth lines.
Vigneault declared that he has a “tremendous amount of faith” in Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes, who were the No. 2 and 3 centers last season, to move up a notch. Stepan’s trade to the Coyotes was “because we had faith in them . . . Hayesie is like J.T.; he’s not a kid anymore. They’ve got some years of experience. It’s their turn. There’s no excuses. We believe they can get it done and at the end of the day, they have to get it done.”
But Vigneault conceded that the team’s depth in the middle is “on the respectable line,” so he is looking at options, including Miller, 24, entering his sixth season having scored a career-high 56 points last year. “I’ve got to go out and see right here early, a guy like J.T. who has played that position before, how he looks, how he feels,” he said. Free agent David Desharnais, 31, who scored 48 points for the Canadiens in 2014-15, will also compete for a job in the middle, along with Lias Andersson, 18, the seventh overall pick in last June’s draft, and Cristoval Nieves, 23, who skated in Hartford last season.
Staal, 30, who has a full no-movement clause, is under pressure on a defense which is trending younger with the buyout of Dan Girardi and the retirement of Kevin Klein. “We believe in him” and his character, Vigneault said, “but at the end of the day he’s fighting for a spot and minutes.” Ryan McDonagh, offensive dynamo Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith and second-year player Brady Skjei are the top four, and Vigneault mentioned holdover Nick Holden, Anthony D’Angelo, 21, who arrived in the Stepan trade, Neal Pionk, a free-agent signee from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and former KHLer Alexei Bereglazov as competition for the remaining positions.