SAN JOSE — David Quinn keeps going back and forth with Ryan Strome.
At first, the Rangers coach had been determined to keep Strome as a center after he filled in so capably in the No. 1 center role during the 13 games Mika Zibanejad missed with a neck injury. But with the need to develop young centers Filip Chytil and Brett Howden, Quinn briefly tried using Strome as a winger.
But coming off a disappointing loss Tuesday to the last-in-the-West Kings in Los Angeles, Quinn felt the need to change things up Thursday night when the Rangers took on the San Jose Sharks in the third game of this four-game Western swing. And the biggest change was to put Strome back at center, and back on the same line with leading scorer Artemi Panarin.
Entering Thursday’s game Strome had six goals, 20 assists and Panarin had 15 goals and 22 assists. They have showed they have a special chemistry together. And after separating them for Sunday’s game in Vegas, Quinn put them back together late in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Kings, to try and get something started.
“Obviously when you score one goal in a game (Tuesday), in the last minute, you want to try to shake things up a bit,’’ Strome said of being reunited with Panarin.
Quinn first put the pair together Oct. 24 against Buffalo. The team had lost five straight games and Quinn decided to try something different by separating Panarin and Zibanejad for the first time. It worked. Strome had two goals in that game, Panarin had one and the Rangers won, 6-2.
“We have good chemistry, yes,’’ Panarin said of the pairing with Strome. “I don’t know why. But probably we think the game the same. It’s difficult to answer.’’
Zibanejad got hurt the next game and Panarin, Strome and Jesper Fast became the No. 1 line during his absence. Panarin had eight goals, 18 assists in the 13 games Zibanejad missed, and Strome went 4-10 as the Rangers went 9-4-1 with Zibanejad out.
Quinn kept Panarin and Strome together the first four games after Zibanejad came back, though Strome played on the wing a couple times, with Chytil in between them. The coach finally separated Panarin and Strome in the first game of the current road trip, putting Panarin back with Zibanejad and rookie Kaapo Kakko on the first line, and putting Strome on the right of Chytil and left wing Chris Kreider. The Rangers won that game, 5-0, and so Quinn kept all the lines together in Tuesday’s game against the Kings. But by the end of the second period, he changed things up.
Against a Sharks team playing its first game under interim coach Bob Boughner, after firing coach Pete DeBoer on Wednesday, Quinn put Panarin and Strome together with Kakko on the second line Thursday. Zibanejad skated between Kreider and either Pavel Buchnevich or Fast on the top line.
The fallout was that Chytil was dropped to a third line, between with some sort of mix of Brendan Lemieux, Greg McKegg, Fast and Buchnevich, and Brett Howden was consigned to a fourth line.
It’s not ideal for a Rangers team that still is rebuilding and still does want to develop its young players to have Howden getting limited minutes on the fourth line. But Strome centering for Panarin has been so good this season, what choice do they have?
“I think as a centerman, you’re able to command the game a little bit more, and control things from the middle of the ice,’’ Strome said. “And I think that’s what I’ve done a good job of this year. But, at the same time, I think, as — me and ‘Quinnie’ talked about it — I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing to go to the wing. I think it’s just kind of the team dynamic we have. We have a lot of guys that can play both positions, and I’m one of those guys. Whenever you get a chance to play with Artemi, it’s a good opportunity.’’