As well as things have gone for the Rangers this season, 40 games in, the team still has an obvious deficiency: They are short one right wing for their top two forward lines.
The trade of Pavel Buchnevich, the failure of Vitali Kravtsov to make the team out of training camp, and the season-ending knee injury of Sammy Blais have left Kaapo Kakko as the only true right wing among the team’s top six forwards. And, at least until general manager Chris Drury goes shopping for reinforcements at the trade deadline, coach Gerard Gallant is going to have to move some pieces around to try and fill that hole.
Kakko, Dryden Hunt, Barclay Goodrow, Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil have all spent time on the right side of the Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome line, and Gallant has yet to settle on one that makes more sense for the team than all of the other options.
When the Rangers hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday, in their return to Madison Square Garden after their season-long, five-game, 11-day road trip, Gallant had all of the options available to him, as Goodrow and Lafreniere returned to the lineup after having had COVID-19 and Hunt returned after missing games with an upper-body injury.
The returning players gave Gallant a fully healthy roster with which to work for the first time since Dec. 15, when they beat the Arizona Coyotes, 3-2, in Glendale, Ariz. (Chytil was a healthy scratch that night.)
"We’ve got depth,’’ Gallant said before the game. "Pretty much everybody's ready to go.’’
The choice Gallant had to make was which player in that spot makes the rest of the lineup its best. He has used Goodrow, for instance, as a utility player, moving him all around the lineup – right wing, left wing, center, and on every line, from first all the way down to fourth. The question with him is whether the team is better with him playing at center in the bottom six forward group, or at wing in the top six.
Lafreniere had a shot at right wing in training camp and at the start of the season, playing on the Mika Zibanejad-Chris Kreider line, but he wasn’t immediately comfortable switching from left to right wing, and early on got dropped down to the third line because Kreider and Panarin were occupying the top two left wing spots.
"I played left wing my whole life,’’ Lafreniere said after playing on the right with Panarin and Strome in Anaheim. "So, obviously, I was more comfortable there. But I'm ready to try to adjust and change to right wing and that's what I'll try to do and try to play the best as I can.’’
Chytil got the assignment Wednesday. He had been the center on the third line, but he hadn’t been very productive this season (four goals, seven assists, 11 points in 35 games before Wednesday). At 6-3, 210 pounds, the 22-year-old Czech has good size and speed, and he did score a huge goal in Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Flyers while playing with Panarin and Strome, sweeping in a pass from Panarin to tie the game, 2-2, just 37 seconds after the Flyers had taken a lead on Cam York’s goal at 10:11 of the third period.
Chytil said besides playing the wing, just playing in the top six, and playing with Panarin and Strome, is different than centering the third line.
"You play a little different style in the second line with those two,’’ he said. "I have to adjust to the wing, but I like it. It's still hockey. I have to work it out. And I have to work and practice in some details. But I feel good there.’’