Rangers center Mika Zibanejad had plenty of time – five seasons’ worth – to build and refine the chemistry on his line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Those were the players then-coach Alain Vigneault put him with when he first joined the Rangers in 2016 after coming in a trade from Ottawa, and over the years the trio made beautiful music together.
But Buchnevich was traded to St. Louis over the summer — mostly for salary cap reasons, partly to change the mix in the lineup — as the team sought to bring in more grit at the expense of some skill. Now, a quarter of the way through the season, it seems the Rangers are still searching for a replacement for Buchnevich on the right side of the Kreider-Zibanejad line.
"I played with Buchie and Kreids for five, six years,’’ Zibanejad said following the Rangers’ morning skate Wednesday at UBS Arena before their game against the rival Islanders. "I think you’re trying to find some line combinations, especially being that long, playing with the same guy. You get an opportunity to play with some different guys, and I think that’s been fine… I don’t think anything changes in my game, or Kreids’ game, really, [regardless of] who the right winger is.’’
Through the first 18 games, it’s been a revolving door of wingers for Zibanejad and Kreider. The season began with Kreider on the right and second-year man Alexis Lafreniere on the left. Then, when second-line center Ryan Strome missed four games with COVID-19, first-year coach Gerard Gallant took the opportunity to play Artemi Panarin on the left with Zibanejad and Kreider for a couple games.
When Strome returned, Gallant shifted Kreider back to the left wing and put newcomer Barclay Goodrow on the right. And when Filip Chytil missed three games with an upper-body injury, Goodrow moved into Chytil’s spot on the third line and rugged winger Sammy Blais played up with Kreider and Zibanejad.
But Blais suffered a season-ending knee injury in the game against the Devils Nov. 14, and the carousel started again. Goodrow went back to the top line, and then in the last game against Buffalo, Gallant moved Goodrow out and tried another newcomer, Dryden Hunt in that spot.
Hunt worked with Kreider and Zibanejad at practice Tuesday, but Gallant wasn’t sure he’d use that trio against the Islanders. He was toying with maybe another tweak, with Julien Gauthier a possibility. The 6-4, 227-pound Gauthier, who was in and out of the lineup the first 15 games, became a regular once Blais got injured, and he had been playing well on the third line with Lafreniere and Chytil.
Kreider has scored 13 goals entering Wednesday’s game, fourth in the league behind Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl (18) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Calgary’s Andrew Mangiapane (tied with 15). With the way he's been shooting the puck, whoever gets the assignment of playing with Zibanejad and Kreider won’t have to carry too much of the load. Perhaps the biggest thing would be for that player just to play well enough to hold on to the spot for a while, so his linemates can get to know him a little.
"Some guys you click with instantly, and some guys you need to understand a little bit more,’’ Zibanejad said. "And when you get that time to work together… you start understanding each other. I feel like it doesn’t always have to be the first game you play together it clicks, or if it doesn’t then it’s never going to happen. I mean, I had the same thing with [Mats Zuccarello]. The first few games we played together it didn’t really click at all. But then we got to talk a little bit more, got to play a little bit more together, and then it worked."