The Rangers lost more than a game in Calgary on Saturday night — they lost two of their top centers to injury. With captain Chris Drury concussed, and Brandon Dubinsky possibly out for “a little while” with a hand or wrist injury, the club now finds itself extremely short on depth up the middle.
Vinny Prospal, who’s split time this season between center and left wing, will slide back over to fill the role of first line pivot. Rookie Artem Anisimov, who head coach John Tortorella has actively been seeking to get more ice time, will get ample opportunity to prove he’s worthy of the extra duty. And Brian Boyle, who’s shown flashes of talent exceeding the fourth like job he’s earned, will see increased ice time as well, especially on the penalty kill, where Drury’s presence could be missed most.
That leaves the Blueshirts in search of one more center, with three basic solutions available: Fill from within, fill from below, or fill from outside. Let’s look at each alternative in turn.
Fill from within
The schedule is solidly on the Rangers side right now — the Blueshirts play only three games in the next two weeks: Thursday, November 12th against the Thrashers, Saturday, November 14th at the Senators, and Tuesday, November 17 against the Capitals. Then they’re off again until the following Saturday, when they face the Panthers. If either Drury or Dubinsky’s injury is thought to be short-term, the Rangers could opt to move a player already on the roster from wing to center. Ryan Callahan, Sean Avery and Chris Higgins have all seen a smattering of time in the middle at some point in their careers.
Or, Tortorella could simply rotate through the three centers he had in Calgary on Saturday night — not out of the realm of possibility considering how infrequently he plays his fourth line anyway. If Brashear’s ready to come back and start earning his $1.4 million salary by Thursday, the Rangers brain trust could simply stand pat and play with the hand they’ve dealt themselves. Or they could look to Hartford for a winger — say P.A. Parenteau — rather than a center to fill the gap.
Fill from below
Center isn’t exactly a position of depth for the organization. The clubs two most promising prospects at the position, Anisimov and Derek Stepan, have either already made the club or are stuck in the NCAA for the season. That leaves five centers — each with their own warts — available for call-up.
Evgeny Grachev isn’t one of them, even though his name seems to be the first one mentioned by most pundits. Grachev hasn’t played center since coming to North America. He plays left wing in Hartford and he played left wing for the Brampton Battalion last season. The Rangers aren’t going to call up a 19-year old kid to fill a position he hasn’t played in well over a year. The only way Grachev gets the call on the wing. Given his inconsistent play in Hartford and the likelihood he’d see only limited ice time in New York, this doesn’t seem like a likely first option.
Corey Locke, the AHL’s leading scorer with 21 points in 14 games, would seem like the obvious choice, and it would be hard to argue he’s not deserving of the opportunity. The biggest concern with Locke is that he’s generously listed at 5-foot 9-inches and 189 pounds. On the power play, when given extra time and space, Locke can be dynamic. But only seven of his 21 points have come at even strength. It’s difficult to imagine him being anywhere near as successful offensively at the NHL level, where the game is faster, the players smarter, and the hits harder. And the three time AHL All-Star isn’t going to earn an NHL job for his defensive prowess or physical play, so it’s top six or bust. Still, the 25-year old has seen only one game of NHL action in his career, and it’s hard to write him off as a career AHLer when he’s still waiting for his shot.
Unless you’ve been paying attention to the Wolf Pack, you probably had no idea that Brodie Dupont has been playing center this season. With Anisimov making the big club and Rissmiller dispatched to Grand Rapids, Dupont’s been lining up in the middle against many teams’ top lines. His numbers — four points in 14 games — are hardly impressive, but he’s been playing well of late, and he’d give the parent club an honest effort, throw his body around on the forecheck and be responsible in his own zone. If it’s a five-minute-per-game, fourth line role looking to be filled, what more could you ask for?
Rookie Paul Crowder had a great training camp and earned a late look in preseason because of it. But the bloom came off that rose pretty quickly. After starting with six points in his first six games he’s dropped with a thump back to earth, tallying only a single assist in the eight games since and looking every bit the undrafted rookie he is. It’s difficult to imagine he’d merit even a passing thought.
That leaves NHL veterans Tyler Arnason and Patrick Rissmiller. There’s little doubt that 30-year old Arnason was brought in this summer for exactly this situation, but his play in Hartford thus far has been abysmal. A team worst minus-8 in 11 games, with only three assists to his credit, it’s a stretch to think of him as a serious option, unless all the Rangers are looking for is someone who’s “been there before”. Stranger things have happened…
And while Rissmiller has picked up two goals and two assists in six games since being lent to Grand Rapids, the question with him isn’t so much whether he could fill in on the Rangers — he’s got the skills to play in the NHL — but whether he’s burned too many bridges to merit the chance. Chances are, he has.
Fill from outside
General Manager Glen Sather has long been rumored to be looking for a legitimate top line center. Could this been the catalyst to make him finally pull the trigger? That could depend on the prognosis for Drury and Dubinsky. Having two of your top centers on injured reserve doesn’t exactly help one’s bargaining power around the league. This might not be the most advantageous moment to go shopping.
Michael Nylander’s name has been bandied about the message boards, and conveniently enough, he’s on waivers at this very moment. But why would anyone want to do the Capitals the favor of ridding them of the albatross they saddled themselves with when they signed the Swedish Gretzky to a $5.5 million, four-year deal with a full no movement clause back in the summer of 2007? That’s not even taking into account the salary cap space that would be needed to be made to fit him, even if he were claimed on re-entry waivers at half price. And have I mentioned he’s yet to play a game for the injury-riddled Caps this season?
Peter Forsberg was already on the Rangers radar, but reports from the Karjala Cup tournament in Helsinki suggest his return to the ice has been less than inspired and one Russian report suggested he may be playing on a bum knee. Should he decide he’s healthy enough to attempt yet another comeback, the competition from other teams — and the KHL — is sure to be fierce, meaning significant cash will need to be thrown his way. With the Rangers having less than a million in space left under the cap, that would require moving salary — and more than just Aaron Voros’ $1 million. That would most likely mean sacrificing a player making $2 million or more. That’s an big risk to take for what could prove — yet again — to be damaged goods.
Then there’s a guy like Michael Peca — a perfectly serviceable bottom six center who’s still waiting by the phone for an east coast team to call and offer him a contract. The Rangers tried him on for size once, during the summer of 2007, but that ended in frustration when management dragged its feet during negotiations. That bridge may already have been burned — it could depend on how desperately Peca wants to continue his career.
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