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With Derek Stepan injured, Rangers need to decide on a center

Rangers center Derek Stepan brings the puck up

Rangers center Derek Stepan brings the puck up ice in the second period. (April 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

NEWARK - For a moment, put aside the Broadway Hat, the iconic black fedora that has been awarded to the Rangers' MVP after wins for several years.

This weekend, what the Rangers' front office should be wearing are Sorting Hats, descendants of the wrinkled, sloped lid featured in the Harry Potter series. The wise old hat does the work and announces its choice of which house in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry each student will attend.

With the final preseason game having been played Saturday night, president and general manager Glen Sather, assistant general manager Jeff Gorton and coach Alain Vigneault will huddle, conclude training camp with a roster for opening night in St. Louis on Thursday and re-assign players to the AHL.

After Saturday morning's skate at Prudential Center, Vigneault calculated that 85 percent of the roster was set, with three spots still open. The sixth game of the preseason, he said, would help determine the last two forwards and a seventh defenseman.

With the team payroll already near the $69-million salary cap and the team in search of a depth center, management was thrown a curveball when No. 1 center Derek Stepan went down in conditioning drills with a broken fibula on Sept. 24. He is expected to miss four to six weeks.

Matthew Lombardi, who left the NHL with assorted injuries but led the Swiss League in scoring last season, went down with a groin injury after signing with the Rangers.

Given the financial squeeze, Stepan is likely to be placed on long-term injured reserve, which makes him ineligible for 10 games.

Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore are more than capable in the circles. J.T. Miller, 21, a former No. 1 draft pick who has played primarily at wing in the AHL and NHL, impressed at camp and will make the roster. Veteran right wing Martin St. Louis auditioned at center on Friday and proved capable, but Vigneault seemed hesitant to make a firm commitment.

So Lombardi played Saturday night for the second time, as he and centers Chris Mueller and Oscar Lindberg had another shot. Kevin Hayes, the 6-4 prospect out of Boston College, hurt his shoulder against Chicago on Friday but appeared destined for Hartford.

The battle appears to be between Lombardi and Mueller, and the club might choose to stick with the more experienced Lombardi.

In the mix on defense are Matt Hunwick, a lefty who has played the right side as well, and righties Michael Kostka and Steven Kampfer, who played the left side. "One of those three is going to stay on," Vigneault said.

With space if Stepan is indeed placed on LTIR, 19-year-old Anthony Duclair, right wing Jesper Fast or Mueller should remain, although Vigneault has insisted that things could change a few weeks into the season.

Bring on the Sorting Hats.

Notes & quotes: Goals by Tuomo Ruutu, Jaromir Jagr and Dainius Zubrus gave the Devils a 3-0 win over the Rangers Saturday night, closing out the preseason schedule for both teams.

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