Hartnett: Rangers Shouldn't Appease Declining Vets While Developing Youngsters

With Eye On Future, Quinn Has Difficult Decisions To Make

Sean Hartnett
October 30, 2019 - 11:42 am

Youth needs to be trusted, rewarded and fully embraced by the Rangers. There can’t be any shortcuts or half-steps.

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For the Rangers to fully benefit from the youth movement, growing pains and on-ice miscues must be tolerated for the sake of the larger picture. Forget about tough-love benchings.

If coach David Quinn can show his youngsters that he has their backs, he’ll be the beneficiary because his most promising players won’t be looking over their shoulders in fear of trimmed ice time after making a mistake. Then, they will have the confidence to play their natural game.

Think of the Rangers’ youth movement like a bonfire. What does a bonfire need to grow from a small flame to a massive glowing blaze? That’s right, it needs oxygen. If Quinn can give youth his full blessing, this team of high-upside youngsters can spark big change for an organization that’s been an also-ran in recent seasons.

The Rangers outplayed the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning to earn an impressive 4-1 victory Tuesday night. Consider this the first log on the fire in the Blueshirts’ quest of becoming an all-conquering inferno.

Quinn made a big call by sitting out declining defenseman Marc Staal. The 32-year-old was a healthy scratch for the first time in his 13-year career. Some might call the decision overdue, but it takes guts to send a highly respected blue liner and alternate captain to the press box.

Twenty-one-year-old defenseman Ryan Lindgren took Staal’s place in the lineup and contributed an assist on 21-year-old blue line partner Adam Fox’s crucial goal that padded the Rangers’ lead to 3-1 late in the third period.

Ryan Lindgren
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Previously, 20-year-old Filip Chytil marked an impressive return to Broadway with what proved to be the game’s winning goal. Lindgren and Chytil received call-ups from AHL Hartford on Monday.

Mika Zibanejad’s upper-body injury made Chytil’s promotion necessary. Once Zibanejad recovers and is reinserted into the lineup, it must be Zibanejad as the No. 1 center and Chytil behind him centering the second line. Though Ryan Strome’s play has been encouraging, it’s only a matter of time before Chytil makes that role his own. Don’t mess with the kid. If he’s the future, give him the big-league minutes necessary to aid his development.

Eighteen-year-old prodigy Kaapo Kakko chipped in with a power play goal and led the Rangers with five shots on goal. Quinn is going to need to adjust his ice time appropriately. Industrious wing Jesper Fast is better suited to third-line duty in a scaled-back role. It should be Kakko on the first line and Fast flipped to line three. Kakko is the high-potential talent. Let him grow.

For the Rangers to flip the switch all the way to youth, that also means that 33-year-old scrapper Micheal Haley and 30-year-old defenseman-converted-to-wing Brendan Smith are removed from the lineup in favor of reinforcements from Hartford with more upside and a better chance of being part of the long-term plan.

Perhaps a full step to youth includes 23-year-old Alexandar Georgiev taking away more of 37-year-old Henrik Lundqvist’s ice time. Through five appearances, Georgiev played to a .924 save percentage compared to Lundqvist’s .906 save percentage through six appearances.

Keep in mind, this is a small sample of games. Should Georgiev continue playing at this level, the Rangers will have no choice but to relegate Lundqvist to backup duty. Maybe Lundqvist becomes more of mentor than a clear-cut No. 1 goalie until highly touted 23-year-old Igor Shesterkin is ready to compete for the starter’s net.

Whether it’s a face as familiar as Staal or Lundqvist, or a stopgap placeholder like Haley, no veteran appeasing should stand in the way of long-term progress. Build that youth-driven bonfire up and up.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.