‘Secret language’ between Rangers stars makes it tough for linemates to fit in

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest and most consistent concern with the New York Rangers in recent years, and to this day, is why they can’t find a right wing to mesh with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider in the top six.

The long-time Blueshirts linemates and BFFs have crushed it together on the power play and penalty kill and scored their fair share at even strength over the years. But their 5v5 metrics underscore the fact that they’ve been unable to find a right wing they can have consistent success with.

Zibanejad and Kreider are incredibly in tune with each other, so why the difficulty adding a third party to their line?

“I’ve talked to players who’ve played in that role, off the record, it’s not easy to play with two guys who have played together for as long as Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad have. They have like their own secret language almost, with the way that they play off of each other,” New York Post beat reporter Mollie Walker stated on the Rink Rap podcast presented by Forever Blueshirts this week.

“Being the third person coming into that sometimes can be really difficult and it has proven to be difficult for a lot of players, the absolute revolving door of players, that have been there.”

Finding that right fit on right wing could be the key to unlocking the next step for the Rangers, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2014 and winning the Cup for the first time since 1994.

Pavel Buchnevich clicked with the pair. But since Buchnevich was traded for salary-cap reasons to the St. Louis Blues on July 23, 2021, there’s been a parade of forwards who’ve tried and failed to fill the right-wing role on Zibanejad’s line. The closest best fit was Frank Vatrano, who was acquired prior to the 2022 trade deadline and teamed with 93 and 20 during a long playoff run, before departing in free agency at the end of that season.

Just look at the revolving door last season. Kaapo Kakko, Blake Wheeler, Jimmy Vesey, Jack Roslovic, Will Cuylle, Filip Chytil and Alex Wennberg took turns on that line, with no real success. Zibanejad finished with just 12 even-strength goals, fewer than the 14 (12 power-play, two shorthanded) he tallied on special teams. He went through a 10-week stretch without scoring an even-strength goal last season.

In the Eastern Conference Final, Zibanejad and Kreider were completely shut down, blanked at even strength, with Kreider scoring once shorthanded, in six games.

“I have asked that question before and the answer is ‘Yeah, of course it’s tough.’ These guys have their own language, their own cues. They know each other’s tendencies like their own,” Walker explained. “So, coming in and trying to … add to that, or support it even, is proving to be a real difficult challenge.

WATCH: Mollie Walker breaks down the Rangers 2024 offseason

Rangers options next season with Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Pittsburgh Penguins
Reilly Smith — Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So, what are the options in 2024-25 when the Rangers renew their quest to lift the Stanley Cup?

The Rangers acquired veteran forward Reilly Smith in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 33-year-old is a five-time 20-goal scorer and someone who’s succeeded in the past playing with skilled players with the Vegas Golden Knights, whom he helped win the Stanley Cup in 2023.

The versatile Smith can play all three forward positions and appears right now to be the top option heading into training camp to get the first chance on a line with Zibanejad and Kreider. Smith is a very smart player, but there are plenty of questions about his fit on the top line.

If not Smith, Kakko could get another look, though he admittedly failed miserably with those two last season.

Rookie Brennan Othmann could get a look too, though Walker would be surprised if the 21-year-old lands that spot to start the season.

“If Brennan Othmann comes in and has an absolute awesome camp, lights it up in the preseason games … sure, that could be an option,” Walker explained. “But I don’t know if they want to hand over the keys to that car to a 21-year-old. He played three games in the NHL last year and they were not memorable, they were fine … it was pretty quick work. Peter Laviolette got a look at him and that was it. I kind of got the impression that there was no impression made.”

Of course, that could change in camp. Though Smith seems the most likely option.

There is a more drastic option for Laviolette, one that would send tremors throughout the entire lineup.

“I definitely think that something to consider is breaking them up,” Walker offered. “But that’s the bones of their lineup and that’s one of the most prominent bones … it’s tough, it’s a tough job. It never always falls on the new right winger. It obviously falls on Mika and Chris, as well. But I think it will just take the right kind of player or they’re just going to have to scrap it at some point and come up with a different variation of the top six, which is so hard to do now that we’ve had what was an unbelievable year of Alexis Lafreniere, Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.”

That’s the nuclear option because the Trocheck line was intact all season after Chytil’s injury in the 10th game, and in every postseason game. Panarin scored 120 points, Trocheck played in the NHL All-Star Game and had a career-best 77 points. And Lafreniere exploded with 28 goals and has the looks of becoming a star in this League.

So, the hunt continues. And the pressure mounts to find the right fit for Zibanejad and Kreider at even strength.

“It’s one the Rangers have been dealing with for far too long,” Walker concluded.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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