GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The rise of some younger players has forced some 11th-hour tinkering before the Rangers open their season against the Islanders at the Garden on Thursday night.
“We’ve got some kids here who are pushing for ice time and for roles,” coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Monday. “Their work ethic has been very good and their skill level is high.”
For the first time, Vigneault said the team “will probably start” with only seven defensemen. With eight still around, someone will be waived or reassigned before the 23-player maximum roster must be filed with the NHL by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Vigneault also anticipates keeping 13 forwards, which is possible if center Oscar Lindberg (offseason hip surgery), who was cleared for contact and practiced Monday, is placed on injured reserve. The 24-year-old Swede is two to four weeks from playing, according to Vigneault, depending on conditioning.
The only defenseman who wouldn’t have to clear waivers is prospect Brady Skjei, who is on an entry-level contract. Both Dylan McIlrath, a 2010 first-round pick, and Adam Clendening, 23, would need waivers to be assigned to the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack.
McIlrath, who has been unable to nail down a regular job, could be traded to give him a fresh start.
Only one forward line is set: left wing Chris Kreider, center Mika Zibanejad and Russian right wing Pavel Buchnevich.
“There’s a speed element with Chris and Mika, and for some reason, Pavel . . . fits real well with his skill level and doesn’t shy away from anything; he goes into the real tough areas, traffic, into the corners, is able to retrieve pucks, makes plays when there’s a lot of people around,” Vig neault said. “And that line, even though I tried a multitude of things during camp, has stood out.”
On Monday, Rick Nash was moved to the right of Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller for the first time and Mats Zuccarello skated with center Derek Stepan and Jimmy Vesey, the rookie who had been playing with longtime friend Hayes. That group will form the early top three lines. The decision is on the fourth line, with Josh Jooris and Brandon Pirri the candidates for center and Jesper Fast and Michael Grabner on the wings.
That quartet could change soon. Lindberg said he felt good after practice and that getting his timing down will be next.
The wild card is 6-3 center Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, 22, who impressed in the Traverse City prospect tournament and was good on faceoffs and the penalty kill in the final preseason game. Observers said he was the best player on the ice during two weekend AHL games, Vigneault said.
The odds are less than 50-50 that Nieves will dress Thursday night, Vigneault said, but he added: “I like that size and I liked that skating. He’s played extremely well; a young guy that’s in the back of my mind and management’s mind.”