January 21, 2021

Rangers can breathe easy as they dodge a Mika Zibanejad injury, but brings center depth issues to the forefront

Mika Zibanejad healthy (Getty Images)

The New York Rangers managed to survive their first scare of this consolidated 2020-2021 season. Mika Zibanejad is expected to play in Friday night’s game against the Penguins in Pittsburgh, but fans were certainly worried until they saw him skate at practice today.

Rangers get big scare late against the Devils

Some 48 hours ago, things did not seem to look good for the Ranger’s star center when he lost his edge deep in the New Jersey Devils zone and crashed body first into the boards. Zibanejad was unable to take another shift for the final two-plus minutes of the period as the Rangers lost a one-goal game 4-3.

So as head coach David Quinn stated to Larry Brooks of the New York Post after practice on Wednesday, “Lower body for Lemieux and upper-and-lower for Mika, we can go with, but both were maintenance days. They’ll be ready to go for Friday,”

A reoccurring issue emerged from this potential disaster. What would the club do should Zibanejad had been injured and forced to miss some games?

Shuffling lines would only be a short term fix

mika zibanejad injury
Mika Zibanejad skating slowly to the bench (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

At the team’s Wednesday practice, the lines were shuffled without Zibanejad. Brendan Lemieux earned a “Maintenance” day after his shot-blocking performance that drew praise throughout the league after the game Tuesday.

Quinn put Filip Chytil in Zibanejad’s place next to Chris Kreider and moved Alexis Lafreniere to the other side. Ryan Strome centered Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich.

Brett Howden was in the middle of Philip Di Giuseppe and Kaapo Kakko. The last line had Kevin Rooney centering Colin Blackwell and Julien Gauthier.

This lineup could work out in the short term of a regular scheduled NHL season. During the marathon 56-game schedule the Blueshirts are in right now, this lineup would be a trouble over the long term.

Rangers will need a fix that thinks longer term

The NHL is a four-line league. Wins and losses are determined by the grit of a strong center running the fourth line. They usually play against the opposition’s top lines.

The Rangers acknowledged the situation by moving center Morgan Barron from the Taxi Squad to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack on Wednesday afternoon.

The AHL will begin their abbreviated season on Feb. 5 and the Blueshirts want Barron to get game action in the event they have to recall him should a player suffer an injury or has a Covid protocol issue.

Barron is not the answer the team is looking at in the short term. The club needs to look, via a trade, for an NHL ready center who can step in and help the moment he arrives.

This is no easy task as the club has been trying to figure this problem out since they were knocked out of the Qualifying Round last summer.

Ryan Strome slow start accentuates the struggles

Even with Zibanejad in the lineup, the team continues to struggle in the middle. Ryan Strome has zero points in the team’s first three games as does Brett Howden. 21-year-old Filip Chytil has two points (1G 1Al) in the first three games.

There is no easy fix, but if it was easy anyone could do the job of general manager Jeff Gorton.

One thing is certain, the team needs to have a plan B and plan C in place right now just in case another center has an issue that keeps him out of the lineup. Band-Aid solutions will only carry a team so far.

In the case of the Rangers, sitting at 1-2 and in 7th place in the division, the team is one bad injury away from hitting rock bottom and looking up for most of the regular season.

Coming from behind can be fun to watch and be a part of, but in the end, teams will run out of gas prior to making the playoffs or in the first round of the post-season.

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