The forward lines at the Rangers’ practice on Wednesday looked almost exactly as they did for the team’s opening night game against the Islanders, way back in mid-January. The top three lines were as they were that night, and the fourth line was two-thirds what it was, with Colin Blackwell occupying the spot of Brett Howden, currently unavailable while on the team’s COVID-19 list.
So, as the Rangers visited the Flyers Thursday for the opener of a three-game road trip, it was almost as though, after 31 games, and a record of 14-13-4, the team had hit the reset button, and gone back to Square One.
It hadn’t, of course. Not exactly. Opening night third-pair defensemen Tony DeAngelo (waived) and Jack Johnson (season-ending surgery) are not around anymore. And, for the fifth straight game, the team was being coached by Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch, with coach David Quinn and his entire bench staff— assistants Jacques Martin, David Oliver and Greg Brown — still out because of COVID protocols.
For the most part, though, the Rangers look as they were meant to look when the season started. And shortly, there will be a new guy thrown into the mix — forward Vitali Kravtsov.
Kravtsov, who played the season in Russia on loan to his old KHL club, Traktor Chelyabinsk, joined the team for practice Wednesday, skating as the extra forward. He won't play Thursday, Knoblauch said, but he’ll be in the lineup soon.
"That'll be Gorts [GM Jeff Gorton] and ‘Quinnie’ who will decide that,’’ he said.
It’s pretty much a certainty that Kravtsov, the ninth pick overall in 2018 — he was the first of three first-round picks the Rangers had that summer — won’t be on the fourth line. The 21-year-old scored 16 goals in 49 games in the regular season for Traktor, and added two goals and two assists in five playoff games. The Rangers will want to see him go through a couple practices before putting him into the lineup, but they practice again Friday before playing back-to-back day games Saturday in Philly and Sunday in Washington. So it’s possible he could play as early as Saturday.
But where would he fit best?
Knoblauch said he hadn’t talked much about that in his daily briefings with Quinn, but the way the lines were configured in practice — Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich; Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Kaapo Kakko; Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Julien Gauthier; Brendan Lemieux-Kevin Rooney-Blackwell — the most logical spot for Kravtsov would be on the third line, replacing Gauthier.
Blackwell has been a find for the Rangers and looked good on the second line, with Panarin and Strome. But in Monday’s 5-3 win over Buffalo, Knoblauch moved Kakko into that spot, and the young Finn scored two goals. Blackwell, whose six goals and four assists in 22 games should be enough to keep him in the lineup somewhere, looks like a more natural fourth-line player than Gauthier, who has been in and out of the lineup all season.
In talking with the media after Wednesday’s practice, both Knoblauch and Strome appeared to be trying to temper expectations for Kravtsov, talking about the need for him to learn the Rangers’ systems before stepping into the lineup.
"It's important that everyone takes things slow and expectations [reasonable],’’ Strome said. "I think oftentimes, especially to jump in during the middle of the season — I know he's been playing games in a different league — but it's challenging to come over and jump in the middle of the season.’’
The Rangers are acutely aware of the offensive struggles all of their 21-and-under players (except for defenseman K’Andre Miller) have had, and will want to shield Kravtsov as much as possible from the pressure to produce gaudy numbers. Putting him on the Kid Line with Lafreniere, 19, and Chytil, 21, seems the best logical spot.
Notes & quotes: Rangers assistant coaches Jacques Martin and Greg Brown cleared COVID-19 protocols and joined the team in Philadelphia. Martin was expected to be on the bench as an assistant to Knoblauch along with associate general manager Chris Drury. Knoblauch said Brown was going to start the game from the press box and then was "going to come down (to the bench) later in the game." Gord Murphy went back to coach Hartford . . . As far as players, Phil Di Giuseppe was cleared off the COVID-19 list. Brett Howden remains on it.
With Anthony Rieber