Sports aren’t always fair. Puck luck can go either way over an 82-game season. As it happens, the New York Rangers have suffered a devastating injury following a stretch of good fortune.
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Just four days after signing a seven-year, $45.5 million contract, Chris Kreider fractured his foot and will be out indefinitely. As of right now, the timetable for his return is undetermined, but most broken feet take a substantial amount of time to heal. The 28-year-old left winger has been an integral part of the Rangers’ recent surge up the standings. Since the start of 2020, Kreider has scored 12 goals and 8 assists in 23 games. The Rangers have gone 16-7-0 over that span.
The Rangers have been one of the NHL’s top teams through February. Going into their Feb. 28 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, they were just two points out of the final wild-card spot and had won a franchise-best nine straight games on the road. All of that came to a screeching halt at 7:42 of the 1st period in Friday night’s 5-2 loss when Kreider’s foot took the brunt of a blistering Philippe Myers’ clapper.
Kreider’s 45-points rank fifth in team scoring and his 24 goals trail only Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. His 31 points at 5v5 are fourth on the team and his 112 5v5 shots rank third. He was on pace for 31 goals and 60 points, both would have been career highs. The Rangers brass re-signed him because of his crucial role in the lineup and what he means to the locker room.
The Rangers have responded well to adversity this season. They were originally slated to fall to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, yet here they stand fighting for a playoff berth. When Zibanejad was out of the lineup for a month, they still managed an 8-4-1 record. When goaltending began to waver, a three-goalie system was adopted. They’ve overcome and adapted to trouble — the Kreider injury is no different.
Next Man Up
The million-dollar question everyone is asking is who will take Kreider’s spot in the lineup. After Panarin, the Rangers’ left-wingers have most recently been Phil Di Giuseppe and Brendan Lemieux. Following the injury, head coach David Quinn used a fluid rotation to fill the hole on the top line with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Initially, he decided to use Lemieux to fill the vacancy, but as the game tumbled out of control, he went with a mishmash of line combinations.
Despite stringing together a few strong games with the Hartford Wolf Pack, don’t expect Vitali Kravtsov to get called up and play hero any time soon. Whomever the Rangers insert into the lineup will likely be used on the fourth line while Kreider’s spot will be filled by a player who’s already been in the lineup. Greg McKegg has been waiting on the sidelines as a healthy scratch, so he’ll be the next man up.
Perhaps the most promising answer to the Kreider vacancy is Filip Chytil. When Buchnevich was sidelined following a car accident, Chytil was playing on the wing on a line with Zibanejad. McKegg could then center the fourth line and Brett Howden would move up to the third line. Chytil’s 12 goals at 5v5 are fourth on the team and his 29 even-strength takeaways are third among forwards. He’s on pace for season highs across the board and has earned the chance for a top-six role, even if it’s on the wing.
The coaching staff should also use their newest Rangers a bit more. Julien Gauthier has been praised by the coaches recently, and his game is modeled closely after Kreider’s. He’s had just a single assist during his time as a Ranger but has had instances of impressive play.
His speed and physicality drive his play, but if he can piece together his game without the puck, he should become an effective winger. Perhaps time with quality linemates will give him the confidence to flourish in the lineup.
It’ll take some creativity to find a new source for offense in the top-six, but whoever it is will have some large shoes to fill. The Rangers are in no position to go into a scoring slump or lose a string of games. With Igor Shesterkin and now Kreider sidelined, doubts about the playoffs are building. Yet, this Rangers squad has shown time and again that they can respond smoothly to adversity and this most recent hump will be no different. What’s one more hill to climb?
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