Today, we ponder the New York Rangers odd man out once No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad returns to the lineup.
New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last eight games. The team has played well in his absence, recording five wins and gaining 11 out of a possible 16 points (save for a blowout at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night).
Players have stepped up in Zibanejad’s absence to carry the load. Ryan Strome, three goals with eight points, Artemi Panarin, three goals, and 12 points, Kaapo Kakko, five goals, six points, have all been productive over this seven-game span.
The creative part for David Quinn revolves around how to put Zibanejad back into the lineup without disrupting its success, while at the same time, allowing Mika to get back to scoring goals.
One thing is certainly clear: whenever Zibanejad has recovered from his upper-body injury, he will be in this lineup.
The question that will be asked is, who is coming out of the lineup?
The answer is complex. The coaching staff most likely would make changes to just one line combination.
In Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team used the following line combinations;
The top three have been putting up points and the best scenario for a change would be to tinker with the fourth line combination. To do that, the first thing that needs to be addressed Lias Andersson’s current status.
Andersson seems to be the least favorite player of Quinn and the coaching staff. He has played in 15 of the team’s 16 games, but his time on ice stat is killing what little confidence he had coming into the season.
The 21-year-old has just two points on the season (one goal), averaging 9:47 of ice time per game. He has not been able to get more ice time, which is why his scoring production isn’t quite meeting his potential.
There is hope for the Swedish player. To improve the overall play of the fourth line, Quinn could remove Greg Mckegg and put Andersson on the wing, and drop Brett Howden to the fourth line center position.
The pairing of Panarin and Strome is playing too well at this time, so splitting them up would be counterproductive. Barring any other injuries, the coaching staff will be looking to set up lines that will continue the point production the club has established since Zibanejad’s absence.
The improved lineup with the addition of Zibanejad could look like this:
Brendan Smith is locked in as a winger for the foreseeable future. This new 12-man forward unit would reunite the KZB line, keeps Strome and Panarin firing on all cylinders, and with the addition of Kakko, will give the line more offensive power.
As for the fourth line, Howden, centering Andersson and Smith (for now), should give Andersson some more ice time with the possibility of getting on the scoresheet more often and possibly gaining some confidence with the coaching staff.
The other alternatives when Zibanejad returns would involve demotions, or maybe even a trade.
Should the organization be unwilling to change the position of Andersson, he has no real fit for the club. He would either be a 13th forward, be demoted to the AHL or, sadly, be traded.
The club should not give up on Andersson without truly seeing what he can do given some quality ice time. Assuming the fifth center role is a hard position to be in, yet he can be a valued asset as a winger who can take faceoffs in a pinch.
Needless to say, a decision will need to be made once Mika Zibanejad returns to the lineup, one that allows the organization’s recent growth to continue.