The Rangers broke out the sticks and pucks for the first time in training camp on Saturday, with three separate groups each taking part in two 45-minute, up-tempo practices under the supervision of head coach Alain Vigneault and his staff.
So when was all said and done at the end of the day, what did we learn?
The Coaching Staff Thought Long and Hard About Who Was In Each Group
There was nothing random about which players skated in which group Saturday. Clearly Vigneault and his staff want to get a look at certain players paired with — or on the same line with — players they might have chemistry with and would more than likely skate with once the regular season gets underway.
For example, in Group A, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan worked drills together and then skated on a line with Rick Nash. While Vigneault later stated not to read too much into early line combinations, he also added that there are certain players that have shown chemistry with one another in the past--like Kreider and Stepan have with one another--and they'd be grouped together here in training camp.
With that in mind, Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard skated together in Group B, with J.T. Miller being given the first crack on their line.
Some other notable groupings: Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast with Ryan Bourque, Dom Moore and Tanner Glass with Travis Oleksuk; and Kevin Hayes and Viktor Stalberg with Richard Nejezchleb.
On defense, the coaches paired rookie Dylan McIlrath, who will be given a long look during camp, with team captain Ryan McDonagh. Doing so gives McIlrath the best possible opportunity to show what he's got.
"He's a great kid, works his tail off," McDonagh said of McIlrath. "He's great because he's willing to ask questions and take criticism When we're out there he's asking me questions, communicating, trying to learn, and I'm doing my best trying to help him. It's really fun to see him progress as much as he has."
AV Is Thrilled To Have Mats Zuccarello Healthy And Back On The Ice
Vigneault opened up his press conference Saturday by stating "It's a great day for the New York Rangers" because Zuccarello is healthy again after the frightening injury Zuccarello suffered during the playoffs when struck a McDonagh shot struck No. 36 in the head.
Zuccarello made the coach smile and let out a laugh when the popular Norwegian winger rifled a shot during afternoon drills past goaltender Antti Raanta and into the back of the net, and then proceeded to celebrate with an exaggerated sword in the holster maneuver with his stick.
Zuccarello is extremely important to this team because of his on-ice creativity and production, as well as for his fun, upbeat personality that endears him greatly to all of his teammates, and the head coach recognizes that. Vigneault said that he will hold Zuccarello out of the "first couple" of pre-season games and let him practice instead. Zuccarello will likely play in three of the final four pre-season matches so that he is ready for opening night in Chicago, according to Vigneault.
Vigneault Is Also Happy With The Conditioning Test Results Of Some Of The Players
Vigneault singled out Nash, Moore and rookie Brady Skjei as players who really impressed with their conditioning test results Friday. Vigneault said Nash, who impressed a year ago had "even better" test results this year according to the head coach, and Skjei were among the most pleasant "surprises" with his test results. However without naming specific players, Vigneault did add that "There were some real positive signs on a lot of players. On others, there's room for improvement."
Kevin Klein Can Lower The Boom
Veteran defenseman Kevin Klein delivered the biggest and best hit during Saturday's drills when he wiped out forward prospect Nejezchleb along the boards in such complete and impressive fashion that the youngster's nameplate became embedded on the glass by the stanchion.
Nejezchleb was none the worse for wear; but he skated the rest of the first session without his nameplate affixed to the back of his jersey. Dan Girardi also stood out with a series over big hits delivered against Lindberg behind the net during five-on-five drills. Twice Girardi knocked Lindberg to the ice, and once as he skated away he flung Lindberg down after the pair became tangled up with one another.
Lindberg's Puck-Handling Skills Are Impressive
Though he took some lumps out there, Lindberg also impressed with his puck-handling skills and compete level. At one point during a five-on-five drill Lindberg protected the puck, using his feet and stick and excellent body positioning, against three opponents before feeding in front where Fast chipped the puck into the net. Nash and Miller, playing in different groups, also stood out Saturday, with each displaying power, speed and will during drills.
There's A Plan For The First Two Pre-Season Games Next Week
The Rangers host the Devils at Madison Square Garden Monday night and then skate against the Flyers down in Philly on Tuesday, and though he didn't name names, Vigneault said as many as four to six players will play in the back-to-back. Vigneault said the first cuts of camp likely will come after Tuesday's game, with most of those players being youngsters getting shipped back to their major junior teams or down to the Hartford Wolf Pack.