When the Rangers signed Benoit Pouliot to his one-year contract, there were some that suggested that Mats Zuccarello would be sent packing (Larry Brooks started this one). It was a thought process I understood, but was a bit puzzled by. The Rangers currently have Richards, Nash, Callahan, Stepan, Hagelin, and Brassard as the shoo-ins for top-nine work. Pouliot slides in nicely into the third line, so that makes seven players rounding out the top-nine. I’d venture a guess that people are handing a spot to Kreider, and it would shock me if he doesn’t make the team, so that makes eight. Zuccarello makes nine on a fully healthy squad.
For the purpose of this post, let us assume that Moore, Dorsett, Boyle, Asham, and Powe don’t magically find a scoring touch this season and find their way to a top-nine role. This leaves those five competing for fourth line (shutdown, on an AV coached team) roles.
This doesn’t take into account the injuries to Hagelin and Callahan. Although both should be ready for the start of the season, it is likely that at least one will need an extra week. Shoulder injuries are tricky, and it can really affect a guy’s game if he’s playing with a bum shoulder. Due to these, the Rangers are not only in need of a ninth for their top-nine, but two injury replacements.
Don’t get me wrong, the Rangers have more than enough depth to not only find their ninth. But on a team that needs to worry about both winning now and developing their top prospects (Kristo, Miller, Lindberg, Fast), having the added depth by keeping Zuccarello is critical. If the Rangers deal him, then they are counting on at least one of these kids being ready for the Show. Let’s call this a lesson learned from last season: You don’t hand jobs to kids, regardless of how highly touted they are. They need to earn their roster spot.
By signing Pouliot and ensuring that Zuccarello is around (arbitration date is set for this Wednesday), the kids don’t get rushed to the NHL, and they are allowed to grow their game in the minors, while serving as injury call ups if need be. It is much more appealing to know that someone like Miller or Kristo will be called up instead of someone like Newbury or (insert AAAA player here). These are call ups that can slide into an offensive role, something the Rangers didn’t have last season.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, this is all about depth, depth, depth, and more depth. The Rangers have the depth to deal with the Callegin (see what I did there?) injuries because they have both Pouliot and Zuccarello. When those two return, then Pouliot and Zuccarello flanking Brassard makes for a very interesting third line.
Depth, depth, depth, and more depth. Boston rolled over New York in the playoffs because of depth. Well, depth and an inability to prevent Torey Krug from scoring. Extra NHL-ready forwards is a blessing. Kids with offensive talent waiting in the minors is more than a blessing, it’s downright unfair.