How Vitali Kravtsov’s issues opened door for Barclay Goodrow

I think we all knew that filling the top-six openings on right wing was going to be a challenge following the free-agent departures of Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp.

Maybe Alexis Lafreniere could make the shift to the right side and make it stick. Maybe Kaapo Kakko could take a step forward. Maybe the prodigal Vitali Kravtsov would be able to nail down a spot in the wake of his summer workout commitment.

Thirty games into what has been an uneven season, head coach Gerard Gallant is still mixing and matching. Still looking for the proper personnel. Still looking for the correct combinations. Line combinations may as well be written in sand.

But following the latest — and necessary — machinations during Monday’s stirring 4-3 OT victory over the devilsin which the Blueshirts rallied from 3-1 down midway through the second period, it seems clear the coach feels most comfortable with Barclay Goodrow filling a top-six RW spot.

Leaning on Goodrow

New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant looks on in the second period against the Arizona Coyotes at Madison Square Garden, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, in New York, NY.
Gerard Gallant’s lineup juggling has the Rangers on a win streak, but still facing a climb to get into the playoff mix.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

A third-liner with the two-time Cup champs in Tampa and a fourth-liner playing the middle in the most optimistic of alignments in New York, Goodrow had added defensive consciousness, sandpaper and impressive touch on a line with Filip Chytil in the middle and Artemi Panarin on the left for as long as the unit lasted.

Which was for two whole games and part of a period before the head coach shook things up Monday after the Devils raced to a two-goal lead. When the renovation was complete, Chytil had been reunited with Lafreniere and Kakko while Panarin moved up with Mika Zibanejad…with Goodrow on the right.

The Lafreniere-Zibanejad-Kakko line, intact for two-plus games, had been overwhelmed in the first period while matched against New Jersey’s Tomas Tatar-Nico Hischier-Jesper Bratt unit. According to Natural Stat Trickthe Devils had a 5-0 edge in attempts, a 3-0 edge in shots, a 5-0 advantage in scoring chances and a 1-0 advantage on the scoreboard in the 3:36 that Blueshirts line was on.

It took awhile, but things settled following the line changes with Goodrow apparently ensconced in a top-six role. Last season, Goodrow played up 24 times, but in only 16 of the final 64 matches. Of course, Dryden Hunt played a top-six role in 27 games.

Barclay Goodrow #21 of the New York Rangers breaks away from Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche during the third period of the game at Ball Arena on Friday, December 9, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.
After falling behind early to the Devils, Barclay Goodrow was moved up into the top six, where he may stay after helping the Blueshirts to a come-from behind-win.
Getty Images

There is nowhere near the dysfunction of the Ranger$ teams that missed the playoffs seven straight years from 1998 through 2004 while bribing everyone in sight to put on the uniform. But using Goodrow in a top-six spot is kind of reminiscent of the club using checking-line center extraordinaire Bobby Holik as the first-line pivot because he was paid so much to sign as a free agent.

Waiting for Vitali

Goodrow would enhance the Rangers’ fourth line, but moving No. 21 to that unit would free a spot on the flank for Kravtsov…who has been a healthy scratch for the past three games and, this is a recording, has played in all of 10 games this season and in four of 16 since Nov. 10 .

There is no way to know what Kravtsov is or what he might be. The man never plays. It is as if his career has come to a halt even when it has never really gotten started.

Actually, you know what Kravtsov looks to be? A throw-in on a trade deadline deal for a rental, that’s exactly what No. 74 looks like.

Maybe the Devils, Penguins and Hurricanes will come back into view at some point during the winter, but these clubs seem to have broken away for the three Metro Division invites to the playoffs, all playing .655 hockey or better.

Brandon Saad #20 of the St. Louis Blues slows up Vitali Kravtsov #74 of the New York Rangers during the second period at Madison Square Garden on December 05, 2022 in New York City.
Vitali Kravtsov has struggled to get on the ice this season, making him a prime candidate to be traded.
Getty Images

Which means that the Rangers, 15-10-5 (.583) and on a four-game winning streak, are for the moment competing for a wild-card spot. They’re essentially in a six-team race with the Islanders, Red Wings, Canadiens, Caps and Panthers for those two berths. There is little breathing room.

That goes a long way toward explaining why Gallant is not experimenting with Kravtsov. He obviously does not trust the 22-year-old, who has one goal and one assist in his 10 games while on for six goals for and just two against. The second power-play unit is more rumor than reality, but Kravtsov has gotten a total of 3:45 of ice time with the man-advantage. Even Zac Jones got about 10:00 more than that.

It seems clear Goodrow isn’t moving down anytime soon. There is little point in dressing Kravtsov to replace Julien Gauthier, whose game has plateaued recently, on the fourth line. But the Rangers could insert Kravtsov on the right on the line with Chris Kreider and Vincent Trocheck while moving incumbent Jimmy Vesey to the fourth line in place of Gauthier.

Vesey has played well in every role he has been assigned. That includes 12 games on the top unit with Kreider and Zibanejad. But if the Rangers want to get a look at Kravtsov, that would be the way to do it.

The New York Rangers celebrate a 4-3 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden on December 12, 2022 in New York City.
Even after showing signs they have righted their poor start to the season, the Rangers are in a narrow fight with five other teams for two wild-card spots.
Getty Images

There is, though, no hint, let alone urgency, to get Kravtsov into the lineup. So, the ninth-overall selection of the 2018 entry draft remains a mystery. Can he play? Can he produce? Can he stand up to the NHL? Who knows?

Chances are the Rangers won’t know what they’ve got until he’s gone.

Lost in plain sight

Jacob Trouba committed another two egregious end-zone mistakes and turnovers Monday that directly resulted in two pucks in the back of the net within the opening 4:46.

This prompted Gallant (and assistant coach Gord Murphy) to drop Trouba to the third pair, where he skated with Libor Hajek for most of the match, while K’Andre Miller hooked up with Braden Schneider (the Miller-Trouba pair was restored over the final 7:00 of the third period when the team cut down to five D and sat Hajek).

Zooming out, Trouba has been a mere shadow of his 2021-22 self. He has been on for 20 goals for and 27 against, his 42.55 GF percentage the lowest on the team. Maybe it’s an injury. Maybe it’s the weight of the captaincy. But the Rangers need Trouba to be the reliable and formidable presence he was last season when he and Miller ascended to become the club’s first matchup pair.

Vegas Golden Knights center Paul Cotter (43) skates around New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba (8) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Dec.  7, 2022, Las Vegas.
Jacob Trouba’s troubles this season resulted in him being dropped to the third defensive pairing during Monday’s come-from-behind win.

Now, despite a 50.65 xGF, the Miller-Trouba pair ranks 23rd of the 24 defense tandems (300:00-plus) with a 35.29 GF, ahead of only Detroit’s Ben Chiarot-Moritz Seider duo (34.21).

Miller’s game, at least, has picked up in the past week or so. The game seems to be coming to him. No. 79 is playing on instinct and not attempting to force offense. But his steps forward have often been negated by Trouba’s troubles.

Figuring out the top six up front was supposed to be a challenge. The top four on the back end was not. Until Trouba can stabilize his game, though, it will be a major issue.

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