With less than two weeks standing between them and the 2015-16 regular season opener in Chicago, the Rangers started to look more like the team they will be than the one that began training camp with more than 60 players on the roster.
Following another round of cuts Friday morning 34 players remain on the roster, with the Blueshirts expected to open the season with 22 or 23 active players--13 forwards, 7-8 defensemen, and two goalies.
The remaining 34 players practiced in a single group on Friday, with the coaching staff conducting a pair of on-ice workouts, the second of which ended with an intense conditioning skate. Another round of cuts will follow Saturday's pre-season contest in New Jersey.
So here are some of the more important things we learned today:
It's Time To Work On The Special Teams
Pretty much the entire first practice on Friday was devoted to special teams play. The Rangers have scored three power play goals in three pre-season games--including a pair Thursday night in Boston--but have not practiced it outside of the morning skates prior to games. On Friday Alain Vigneault had three different units working on various aspects of the man advantage for roughly a half hour. The top power play unit featured four forwards--Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan--and defenseman Keith Yandle. The second unit had Kevin Hayes centering J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Boyle at the points. The third unit had three forwards expected to start the season in Hartford--Brian Gibbons, Jayson Megna and Luke Adam--with defensemen Raphael Diaz and Mat Bodie.
Girardi And Staal Are Anxious To Play
Both Dan Girardi and Marc Staal will make their pre-season debuts when the Rangers skate against the Devils Saturday night in Newark. They are the final two veterans to make their debuts this fall. Both were given extra time before game action to build up strength following off-season recovery from injuries suffered late last season. "I want to be in it now," explained Girardi. "Maybe the first two (pre-season games) it's good to rest, but then you're like I want to get in there and get a feel for the game. Now that the roster has been trimmed down it's getting in our heads that we're getting closer to that first (regular season) game and we're all just really excited to get going and get our game-speed up." Added Staal, "I'm ready. The ankle feels good, getting stronger, and I want to be out there. I'm excited to get going."
Vigneault Is Still Figuring Out The Center Position
The Rangers have at least seven forwards who likely will be on the Opening Night roster who are capable of playing in the middle, and between now and the opener against the Blackhawks Vigneault needs to figure out who are his four best centers and where the others slot in on the wing. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard slot in as the top two centers, and J.T. Miller is pretty much exclusively playing on the wing during training camp and the pre-season. That leaves Jarret Stoll, Dominic Moore, Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg for two center spots. Lindberg may be the most flexible of the four, showing in the pre-season that he looks as comfortable on the wing as he does in his more natural center position. Stoll and Moore are veterans who have played almost their entire careers at center and who bring similar qualities to the team---solid face off skills, defensive awareness, smarts, experience, grit, penalty killing prowess, leadership. Hayes played wing in college, but was almost exclusively a center throughout his rookie NHL season a year ago--plus Vigneault has stated a preference for having the hulking Hayes play in the middle. Moore and Stoll played on the same line during Friday's practice--with Stoll at center---and Moore will play on the wing Saturday against New Jersey, as will Hayes. "The way we play in our system it's not always the center who is in on the forecheck or coming back first, it's more of a first forward, second forward, third forward type system, and you have to be a smart player," explained Vigneault. "Obviously we have some important decisions to make here moving forward."