With Vitali Kravtsov set to complete in the KHL season with Traktor, the New York Rangers must decide who they will deploy at right wing.
The KHL’s regular season is set to conclude on Feb. 27, and the playoffs will last until April 30. Kravtsov plays for Traktor Chelyabinsk — currently third in their division.
With the NHL expected to commence its regular season on or around Jan. 1, if Traktor lasts a few rounds deep into the playoffs, Kravtsov should be ready to join the Rangers at the end of March — around halfway through the NHL season.
That’s all fine and dandy, and Rangers fans are already eager to see one of their team’s top prospects make his long-awaited debut.
However, this does indeed pose a problem for the organization.
Since Kravtsov won’t be around to begin the season, the Rangers will have some serious decisions to make at right wing. Thus, let’s dive a little deeper into the potential options.
Pavel Buchnevich has been the team’s bona fide top-line right winger for quite some time — part of the “KZB” line.
I don’t expect things to change there, and fully anticipate the Rangers to put out that line as their No. 1 option to at least kick off the season.
With veteran Jesper Fast gone after so many years, the young Kaapo Kakko will finally possess the chance to show why he was selected No. 2 overall last year as a member of the top-six. It’s practically certain he’ll slide in alongside Artemi Panarin and most likely Ryan Strome on the team’s extremely productive second line.
Julien Gauthier, whom the Rangers acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in February, will likely be Kakko’s replacement on the incredibly young third line. It’s a line that should additionally encompass Filip Chytil and the exciting rookie Alexis Lafrenière.
The fourth line is where things start to get tricky though. By the end of last season, Gauthier was the team’s fourth-line right winger. And as we just noted, he will almost certainly be promoted to the third line, which will leave a vacancy at 4RW.
Based on the looks of things, Brendan Lemieux will therefore be the regular fourth-line left winger, and that’s really the only clear-cut assignment in that group.
We know Brett Howden will feature on the fourth line, but it’s still unclear where. Howden is a natural center but it’s become well-known that he’s barely an NHL-caliber player at that position.
Head coach David Quinn did give him playing time on the wing last season though, and while he wasn’t great, he played better there than he practically ever did at center.
Could the coaching staff look to make Howden’s move to the wing (in this case, right wing) a permanent one?
If that is the case, it would leave a vacancy at 4C.
Thus, enter Morgan Barron.
Barron is one of the Rangers’ top prospects and is viewed, primarily because of his size and build, to be one of the organization’s most NHL-ready prospects.
In somewhat of a surprising move, the team signed him to an entry-level contract in July, allowing his name to be brought up in conversations about rookies likely to make their debuts with the Rangers next season.
We can probably expect to see Barron in the NHL at some point this upcoming season, but there’s a strong chance the organization will initially look to give him time in the AHL.
Barron is straight out of college and has yet to even make his debut with Hartford, and that might be something the Rangers will want him to accomplish before throwing him into the fire.
If Barron, in fact, doesn’t make an appearance until later in the season, the Rangers would then possess two remaining options.
If they’re keen on putting Howden at right wing, they could then just put newly-signed Kevin Rooney at 4C. That will likely leave Phillip Di Giuseppe as the extra forward they carry.
Due to injuries involving multiple players last year, Di Giuseppe was called up from Hartford and impressed so much that he was featured regularly as the team’s third-line left winger.
Given that, along with the fact that the Rangers are still in the midst of a rebuild, he’s probably earned the right to stick around next year one way or another — that’s evident in the new contract he signed during the offseason.
Option No. 2 will likely be discussed if the Rangers want to keep Howden as a centerman. In that case, Di Giuseppe carries the potential to be their regular 4RW, at least until Kravtsov joins the team.
Di Giuseppe is a left winger but is capable of playing on the right side as well, and has experience doing so.
Based on what we saw throughout last season and during the offseason, my best bet is that the Rangers will kick things off by playing Howden at 4RW and Rooney at 4C.
That, of course, should be a temporary move until both Barron earns a bit of AHL experience and Traktor’s season comes to an end.
As we’ve just dissected, the Rangers have a number of decisions to make regarding the right wing position. Thus, they’re likely going to spend the remainder of the offseason and training camp coming to that conclusion.