The New York Rangers don’t have many options for their fourth line center opening, but Cristoval Nieves may be the man for the job.
As Opening Night inches closer, it’s safe to say the New York Rangers depth chart at center will be something to keep an eye on.
Longtime first line middle-man Derek Stepan was shipped from Broadway to the desert earlier this offseason, as he was the focal point of a Draft Day deal between the Rangers and Arizona Coyotes. Despite being a consistent 50-point scorer, Stepan drew the ire of the Blueshirts faithful because of his declining play and cap hit.
But the hits at center didn’t start with that transaction. Just a week prior, the Rangers lost Oscar Lindberg to the Vegas Golden Knights during the NHL’s Expansion Draft. The 26-year-old may have been a fourth line center but he quickly established himself as one of the better bottom-six forwards in hockey. Despite playing limited minutes, the Rangers will miss his two-way game up the middle.
With both Stepan and Lindberg playing elsewhere next season, the Rangers will certainly need help at center. But by the looks of things, a big-time upgrade doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
Mika Zibenajad has flashed the ability to be a future top line center — but at 23 years of age, he’s yet to be thrust into that role. As long as the Rangers sign the restricted free agent, it appears that he will fill the void left by Stepan in the lineup. He has the potential to thrive in his new spot in the lineup, but it won’t come without growing pains.
With Zibenajad’s promotion, Kevin Hayes takes over his role on the second line. There have been times where the three-year veteran has looked like an emerging star but his inconsistencies on the face-off dot and ineffectiveness come playoff time have been glaring issues. J.T. Miller may be an option, but it appears as though his style of play is better suited on the wing.
On July 5, General Manager Jeff Gorton was able to bring David Desharnais to New York, as the free agent inked a modest one-year, $1 million pact with the Rangers. The former Montreal Canadien and Edmonton Oiler hasn’t had a 50-point season in three years but is a steady presence in the lineup and can win face-offs in key moments.
With three spots seemingly locked up, the Rangers still need one more hole to be filled. Lias Andersson was selected with the first-round pick that was received for Stepan but doesn’t appear to be NHL ready. The free agent market is thinning out by the day and the trade market expensive as ever.
Because of this, the organization may have to look within for help.
And Cristoval Nieves may the answer.
After an up-and-down career with the University of Michigan, the Baldwinsville, NY native signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Rangers just days after the Wolverines were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.
After starting his professional career with a bang (five points in eight games in 2015-16), Nieves struggled in his first full season with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Despite being looked upon as a key contributor, the 23-year-old had just six goals and 12 assists in 40 games, numbers that were seen as a disappointment for someone of Nieves’ stature.
But with a fresh season on the horizon, the man nicknamed “Boo” has the chance to regain his stock and impress team brass.
Nieves may still be a raw product but he also possesses the upside worth taking a chance on — especially when you have a hole in your lineup that needs to be filled. Standing at 6 foot 3 inches tall and weighing 210 pounds, he has the height that teams love but must put on weight to sustain the physical nature of the NHL.
Outside of his physical attributes, Nieves’ skill set is something that every roster would love to have in their fourth line centers. Throughout the early stages of his career, Nieves has displayed a unique blend of size and speed that isn’t seen in many young talents. He’s also a player with exceptional vision, something that will go over well with the bevy of high-powered forwards on the Rangers roster. Sure, he can add physicality to his game, but Nieves doesn’t have a problem getting dirty while crashing the net to create opportunities for his teammates.
Nieves isn’t considered a top-end prospect and doesn’t necessarily flash top-six potential.
But role players are equally as important as stars. If Nieves can help round out the depth chart at center, the New York Rangers may have another young contributor on their hands.