Heated battle expected for New York Rangers 13th forward spot

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On Friday, head coach Peter Laviolette may have given everyone a glimpse at his starting twelve forwards for this season. Which leaves 20 other forwards invited to training camp to battle it out for the coveted 13th forward spot.

The line combinations are sure to change over the remaining days of the preseason, and we can be certain forwards other than the dozen that took the ice this morning will be given their looks before all is said and done.

Per multiple reports, the twelve forwards at practice on Thursday were as follows:

Kreider – Zibanejad – Lafreniere
Panarin – Chytil – Wheeler
Goodrow – Trocheck – Kakko
Vesey – Bonino – Pitlick

Is this third initial line assembled today going to be the “checking line?” Is the fourth line most open to change, given both Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick are new to the team and still relative unknowns? Will Blake Wheeler be a fit on the Artemi Panarin line, knowing how many line combinations have been tried with Panarin since he came to the Rangers — and how few have stuck for any length of time?

“Getting a chance to get the guys who were on the ice last year right away for practice has been really good,” Laviolette said about his initial lines. “Also to watch guys competing for jobs and the best way to do that is through a scrimmage. That’s how we’ll work for the first couple of the days but things will get broken up a little bit more. We’ll get some movement, mix and match by the second game, but it was good to go with our team right away.”

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New York Rangers second line forwards

One important factor to remember is the line combinations can continue to change even into the season — but the roster will be pretty much set unless or until there are trades or injuries. This makes the last question above one of the more important ones relative to who may earn the 13th forward spot this season, as the Blueshirts have gone through numerous machinations over the past few years trying to find the right combination for their second forward line since Panarin joined the team.

As a quick digression, the acquisitions of both Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane last season weren’t just trades made for their own sake; they were rather transparently intended to help improve the Breadman’s game in the postseason. With the Rangers’ early exit at the hands of the rival New Jersey Devils, it’s not clear either trade had much impact in that regard even if one or both acquired veterans became overnight fan favorites.

There’s been much conversation in recent months about the urgency of unlocking first round draft pick Alexis Lafreniere’s potential; but after two years (not counting the pandemic bubble play-in year) of trying to unlock Panarin’s postseason prowess, and especially without Ryan Strome on the team, who else plays on the left-winger’s line remains one of the urgent issues for this coaching staff to figure out.

Bottom six forwards

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Questions about Panarin’s line aside, the initial two questions posed earlier are, at a more obvious level, extremely germane to who may become the Blueshirts’ 13th forward.

Laviolette brings a reputation for including a “checking line” as part of his system of play, in order to protect leads and add some defensive depth to the forward lineup. The previous two Blueshirt head coaches didn’t appear to have this in mind when constructing their lineups; but given that the Rangers aren’t a particularly large, gritty team and are more of a skills team, if you want to add that defensive element you’ll have to do it pretty consciously.

Today’s third line (even if these were just initial tryouts) looks to be that line in these early training camp stages. Barclay Goodrow, Vincent Trocheck, and Kaapo Kakko bring a little grit to the roster and aren’t afraid of grinding to fend off another team. You need those forwards who aren’t afraid to dig out the puck along the boards, to backcheck appropriately, and to land a proper hit when necessary.

The fourth line was the big open question going into camp, and it’ll be interesting to see who ends up there by the end of it all. Jimmy Vesey is a pretty known quantity by now, but both Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick are new. Including them in the initial twelve forwards makes it look like they aren’t just being given a look here and there, but are serious contenders for center and right-wing roles on this team.

Bonino’s two Stanley Cups with the Penguins may have come some time ago, but the veteran forward brings a lot of playoff experience from the various teams for whom he’s played and the question will be, at age 35, what does he still have left to give on the ice — especially for a hard-going, speed-loving coach like Laviolette.

“I’m going to compete every night and every practice,” Bonino said on Thursday. “I don’t have the luxury of not competing. For me, it’s just showing up everyday and putting in the work.”

Pitlick, at age 31, is a tad younger than Bonino, but he may fit well into the head coach’s system of play and though he’s moved around the league his fair share, he has some solid NHL experience.

Possibilities for the 13th forward

This all leaves us with the crux of it — who, realistically, might end up as 13th forward on the Blueshirts’ roster this year?

The possibility that either Bonino or Pitlick still exit camp as the 13th forward is definitely not out of the question; but of the 20 other forwards on the training camp roster, who else might be slotted into that spot?

Jonny Brodzinski is another known quantity to the Rangers, and has had sufficient playing time over the past several seasons to be a reliable, dependable choice in that slot. Jake Leschyshyn has already spent time with the Blueshirts, as well; but he didn’t really impress in his short stint with the Rangers last year. It would be, quite honestly, surprising to see him make the NHL roster out of the gate.

Of course, there are other distinct possibilities, such as Riley Nash, Alex Belzile, and, potentially, Anton Blidh.

But the more intriguing question is whether one of the younger players can impress the coaches (and, let’s face it, Chris Drury) enough to be selected to the NHL roster at the start of the season.

Will Cuylle has recognized skills and has already had a cup of coffee in the NHL, and thus he looks like one of the first in line for the 13th spot if it doesn’t go to Brodzinski or one of the other veteran players on the training camp roster. But Brennan Othmann has impressed throughout his young career to date; and if he can have a topnotch training camp, who knows if he’ll be given a shot?

There are a couple of other tantalizing options among the youth set, as well. Adam Sykora continues to impress at every opportunity, so we can’t completely rule him out. One of the bigger positive surprises in prospect camp this year, was Bobby Trivigno — and you should probably get to know that name, if you don’t already. Drafted out of the University of Massachusetts, the 24-year-old is pretty beloved by his coaches on the Wolf Pack and although he’s only 5′ 8″, his intensity as a player may overpower his small size and earn him an NHL spot before long.

So many possibilities, so little time. One thing is for sure, though: it’ll be fun to watch as the Rangers’ roster starts to emerge more clearly from this year’s camp and exhibition games.

Deborah Seymour grew up in New York City and studied in the City University of New York system for... More about Deborah Seymour

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