The Rangers lineup is all but locked — why there’s so little room for an upset

I’ve been doing this job for a minute or two and I’m not sure I have ever covered a training camp like this one portends to be for the Rangers.

Because barring injuries, it appears there is one and only one roster spot open when camp begins Thursday, and that is the 13th forward slot.

Have at it, Alex Belzile and Riley Nash.

Because it appears there is one and only one opening night spot that will be contested through the preseason, and that is the third-pair slot on the left side of the blue line.

Go to it, Zac Jones and Erik Gustafsson.

Opening line combinations and defense pairings will be determined through the preseason that will include six exhibition matches, the first of which will be played in Boston on Sept, 24, just three days after the team hits the ice for the first time under incoming head coach Peter Laviolette and his staff.

The operative word in the above sentence is the first one: “opening.”

Two years ago, in Gerard Gallant’s first season behind the New York bench, the Blueshirts utilized 18 different starting line combinations through nine games in October. David Quinn’s first year as head coach in 2018-19 featured 29 different starting line combinations through 12 games in October.

And when Alain Vigneault took command in 2013-14 after replacing John Tortorella as the Blueshirts bench boss in a move somewhat similar to this one — in that a rather successful tenure ended after negative player exit interviews on breakup day — the Blueshirts also used 29 different starting line combinations through October’s 12 matches.

So, unless Laviolette finds lightning in a bottle, expect a fair amount of early-season experimentation.

Guess who was on the Rangers’ first line in Gallant’s debut in Washington on Oct. 13, 2021? That would have been Alexis Lafreniere on Mika Zibanejad’s left with Chris Kreider on the right.

For those in the peanut gallery who want to know why the Rangers wouldn’t shift the more veteran Kreider to the right this year rather than the still developing Lafreniere, well, they’ve tried that. Kreider tried that. It has never looked particularly good. If you watch No. 20 in the defensive zone, you should understand why.

Big shoes to Fil

The last time a rookie came out of nowhere — well, Czechia in this instance — to make the team was 2017, when Filip Chytil, age 18 years and 30 days, rode a spectacular camp to earn a spot in the opening-night lineup and became the youngest player to suit up for the Rangers since World War II.

Fifteen seconds into his first NHL shift and 1:50 into the match at the Garden against Colorado, Chytil had a two-on-one with Mats Zuccarello.

“Fifty-fifty to pass or shoot,” Chytil told me after the following day’s practice. “On my first shift, maybe I should have tried a shot, I wanted to score a goal on my first shift, that would have been the best feeling, but Mats was open and I made the pass.”

The pass, though, was tipped away by defenseman Chris Bigras, who later became a member of the Rangers organization, acquired in an exchange for Ryan Graves in what became one of the worst trades of Jeff Gorton’s tenure as GM.

No, Graves was not then what he became for the Avalanche and the Devils. The administration likely deserves a share of the blame for this. Despite recommendations from player personnel people, the Blueshirts refused to promote the defenseman to the varsity, which was in a win-now mode.

The one-for-one trade that was made on Feb. 26, 2018, may have been a minor league deal, but it became a major mistake.

Anyway, back from our trip down bad memory lane, Chytil got 11 shifts worth 7:40 in the 4-2 opening defeat. No. 72 then got nine shifts for 4:59 in his second game, an 8-5 debacle of a defeat in Toronto in which he sat for the final 30:03. After being scratched one game in favor of waiver pickup Adam Cracknell, Chytil was then sent to AHL Hartford.

Rookies on a role

Could anyone pull a 2017 Chytil here?

I suppose Will Cuylle could force his way onto the team with an imposing performance through camp and the six-game exhibition season, but force himself into what spot, actually? Fourth-line left wing where he might pick up 8:00 a game? Would that be best for the 21-year-old’s development? Not at all likely.

And, similarly, Brennan Othmann might be able to make it difficult to send down the 2021 first-round, 16th-overall selection with an eye-opening camp in which the first-year pro demonstrates he is physically capable of playing in the NHL.

But the 21-year-old Othmann would have to secure a top-nine spot in order to make this palatable. It is a long shot, but for the sake of conversation, the Rangers would have Kreider-Zibanejad-Kaapo Kakko as the first line; Artemi Panarin-Vincent Trocheck-Lafreniere as the second unit; and Othmann-Chytil-Blake Wheeler as the third line.

That would bump Barclay Goodrow to the fourth line with, presumably, Jimmy Vesey and Nick Bonino while Tyler Pitlick would become the 13th forward.

This also is not at all likely. Othmann all but surely will begin his pro career with the Wolf Pack. But if — if — Lafreniere can hack it as a top-six right wing and if — if — Othmann cannot be held down after serving an early-season apprenticeship with Hartford, that hypothetical Othmann-Chytil-Wheeler triumvirate might be intriguing in November or December.

The Rangers will measure their kids during camp while installing systems for the varsity. Power-play and penalty-kill concepts will be introduced. Players adapt to their third coach in four years.

That’s what training camp will be about with a roster as locked as anytime in franchise history. You’d almost think last year’s team won something.

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