Going into the 2014-2015 season, the reigning Eastern Conference Champions stood steadfast with one of the most uncertain center ice situations in the NHL. The Rangers made the right decision to buy Brad Richards out of a contract that would’ve crippled the organization for the rest of the decade, but opted to do little in the off-season to replace him. Media skepticism was warranted for a team that finished 18th in scoring last year and chose not to buy in the free agent market. Recent Cup winners have boasted elite offensive skill down the middle, an attribute that has been missing from recent Rangers rosters.
When the puck dropped in October, the Rangers found themselves squandering for an answer to their Achilles heel. Derek Stepan was out for weeks with a broken fibula. Kevin Hayes couldn’t adjust to the speed of NHL hockey in preseason. A confident J.T. Miller had been sent down yet again after just three contests. Swedish hopeful, Oscar Lindberg, couldn’t show enough to crack the roster. Mathew Lombardi refused to report to the AHL and bolted for Switzerland. Fourth liner Dominic Moore’s name was being thrown around as a temporary top six option. Because of the shortage, veteran winger Martin St. Louis sent a text to coach Alain Vigneault that read, “If you need me in the middle, I’m ready.”
To start the year there was only one proven offensive option at center ice, Derick Brassard.
Without Brassard’s performance so far this season, Rangers fans may very well have begun fantasizing about the mythical draft prospects that reside in Erie and Boston. Instead, Brassard has taken his game to new heights with 8 goals and 11 assists in 23 games. He is on pace for an impressive 67 points, 20 more than the career high he set four seasons ago. The Quebec native has also shown that he can succeed with a rotating cast of linemates including the revitalized Rick Nash who he has partnered with on 8 goals. The coaching staff’s trust in Brassard has expanded to all game situations. His ice time has risen from last season’s 15:48 to 17:55 and he’s even seeing minutes on the penalty kill. With consistent and intelligent play at both ends of the ice, Brassard is earning his new 5 million dollar contract and shaping up to be an irreplaceable asset for the Blueshirts.
Brassard’s performance in the absence of Derek Stepan cannot be understated, but the Rangers’ organization came into this season expecting Stepan to be the team’s #1 center. The playmaker had been an iron man to this point in his career, suiting up for 294 of 294 regular season games. After missing last season’s preseason with a contract dispute, Stepan again experienced a setback with a hairline fracture to his fibula two weeks before the season opener.
Fortunately for the Rangers, Stepan’s start has been everything but slow. The newly anointed alternate captain is tied for the team lead in scoring since his return, even with the obstruction to his conditioning. Beyond the points, Stepan is establishing himself as the commander of the Rangers offense. His ability to slow down the game and wait for the right opportunities is opening lanes to the net for New York and the Blueshirts have been taking advantage. Although Stepan has never broken 60 points, one could argue that if New York had been a better finishing team last year, Stepan’s assist numbers would be much higher. Last season the Rangers sunk to 26th in the NHL in shooting percentage, but currently stand at a respectable 8th in that category. Part of that improvement has been team shooting, but Stepan’s creativity and patience in the offensive zone is helping to stir up more quality scoring chances. Last week against the Flyers, Stepan showcased his vision with a sensational cross ice pass that led to a Rick Nash power play goal.
There was no question which players would be centering the Rangers’ top two lines this season, but the third line battle featured a competition that was eventually won by Boston College standout Kevin Hayes. The Rangers tallest player spent the past four years with 2014 Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau. Coming into the season there was talk that Hayes may have been a product of Gaudreau’s offensive explosiveness. That hypothesis has since been disproven with Hayes taking control of his position, keeping fellow youngsters Miller and Lindberg in the AHL.
What’s been most impressive about Hayes is the way he uses his body to protect the puck and take it away. At 6’5”, the American has a deception to his physique, often extending beyond the expectation of opposing players. Hayes has been a turnover machine with 19 takeaways so far in his rookie campaign. That has been good enough to tie him for 17th in the league despite playing only 12:16 per game. Although Hayes has only tallied 7 points in 20 games, the chances he creates by reversing the puck’s direction will inevitably lead to more odd man rushes and scoring chances for the Rangers. The free agent signing seems to have a firm hold on his roster spot and his first round potential is beginning to shine through.
The question mark in New York has been expunged for the moment. The Rangers have two centers playing like number ones, and a third that is slowly coming into his own. To compete against the league’s top teams, it’s imperative that the Rangers show more at center ice and there’s reason to think that this year’s cast might be enough.