It appears the Rangers will enter training camp with Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Filip Chytil, Morgan Barron, Kevin Rooney, and Greg McKegg vying for center positions.
Zibanejad and Strome are guaranteed the top two spots, assuming the Rangers don’t trade for Jack Eichel. News on Eichel has been slow recently, but Elliotte Friedman reported on September 9th that the Sabres have re-engaged in talks.
Greg McKegg was an unexpected off season signing that may prove to be nothing more than an insurance policy as Rooney and Barron compete for the fourth spot. Drury has also confirmed in a recent press conference that he intends to use Chytil and Barron as center as opposed to wingers.
Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome have been effective for the Rangers
Trading Derrick Brassard to the Senators for Mika Zibanejad has proven to be an incredibly worthwhile move for the Rangers. Not only has Zibanejad played well for the team, he has become on of the top centers in the league.
He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, but Larry Brooks recently reported that Zibanejad and the Rangers were working toward a new long-term deal. He had a set back at the beginning of last season due to COVID. But his recovery and improvement throughout the season was amazing to watch.
The Rangers need him to enter this season at the same level he was at at the end of the last. His ability to lead by example also makes him a candidate for the captaincy. Unless the Rangers trade for Eichel (which is doubtful to start the season), Zibanejad is the number one center.
Ryan Strome has only continued to elevate his game each season with the Rangers since coming over from the Oilers during the 2018-19 season. His chemistry with Artemi Panarin is valuable to the Rangers offense. Panarin can play anyone, but Strome has been a great complementary center for him.
Strome fits perfectly on the second line right now, so there is no actual need to acquire Eichel. In theory, it would be an upgrade. But there are still too many unknowns with Eichel. Trade talks may be starting up again, but his injury still leaves uncertainty. The Rangers will be just fine with Zibenjad and Strome lining up 1-2 down the middle for another season.
Filip Chytil and Morgan Barron must find their roles
When Chris Drury took over as President and General Manager towards the end of last season, he discussed the need for every player to understand their role.
One player whose role has not been clear is Filip Chytil. David Quinn often moved him back and forth between center and wing. It’s possible that the young forward would benefit from some stability.
With Drury having clearly expressed his belief that Chytil belongs at center, Gallant should play him there consistently. He showed improvement and confidence last season before sustaining a wrist injury against the Penguins. Understandably, this hindered his progress somewhat, but towards the end of the season he seemed to be trending in the right direction again.
Morgan Barron got a chance with the Rangers late last season. He only played five games but picked up a goal in that time. Like Chytil, Drury feels Barron belongs at center.
He was drafted in 2017 and finally has a chance to show the Rangers he belongs in the NHL. Ideally, he’d claim the fourth line center spot out of training camp. Vince Mercogliano ranked Barron eighth among the Rangers top ten prospects. In his article about Barron, he mentions Barron’s efforts to diversify his skill set and be able to play in all situations.
How do Kevin Rooney and Greg McKegg fit in?
Like many new NHLers, Barron may experience setbacks throughout the season. Head Coach Gerard Gallant may decide to sit him for a few games and let him observe. The player he should watch is Kevin Rooney. In the case that Barron is scratched, it’s very possible Gallant opts to put Rooney in to replace Barron.
Rooney proved to be a worthwhile signing for the Rangers last season. He is an able two way player who can play in many situations and is particularly useful on the penalty kill. This is the kind of player the Rangers need Barron to be. Rooney may turn into a sort of mentor for him.
There is also a chance that Barron doesn’t make the team out of training camp. But if this does happen, the Rangers can be certain they have a solid fourth line center in Rooney.
Greg McKegg was with the Rangers during the 2019-20 season before being allowed to depart as a free agent in the offseason. They have signed him again now, but why?
It seems unnecessary with Zibanejad, Strome, Chytil, Barron, and Rooney. But the Rangers have been looking to improve on faceoffs. And McKegg is fairly strong in that area. When he was with the Rangers, he had a faceoff percentage of 49.3 through 53 games. The prior season, his FO% was 51.0 in 41 games. These are not small sample sizes.
While McKegg likely won’t be the Rangers’ first choice for fourth line center, he is capable of playing there. The faceoff statistics probably made him appealing as well. If there’s a situation where two centers are unable to play, McKegg could definitely slot in.