The New York Rangers still have not signed Derek Stepan. There has been no movement from either camp, although there seems to be conflicting reports on whether or not Stepan would be willing to take one of GM Glen Sather’s bridge deals.
With that said, the Rangers are moving forward without the talented top-six center. There have been a couple of bright spots in the first days of Rangers training camp. Playing two split squad games, it sometimes can be hard to judge what works and what doesn’t. One thing is perfectly clear, however – Brad Richards has come to play.
During the televised scrimmage and during the preseason loss to the Devils, Richards was easily the best player on the ice. He moved smoothly, seemed to see the ice better, and was an aggressive offensive force on every shift. He didn’t score, but he was a bright spot on a power play that was incredibly messy, and seemed unsurprisingly to be a work in progress. If you recall last year, Richards was incredibly disappointing, seeming to never be able to catch up to the pace of the game. He spent the final days of the Rangers playoff run as a healthy scratch, having lost dismissed coach John Tortorella’s confidence. A lot has been said about new coach Alain Vigneault’s “clean slate” policy, but no player needs it more than Richards.
Mats Zuccarello was not going to play for any other NHL team, and he said it to anyone who would listen. That kind of loyalty should not go unnoticed or unrewarded. So the diminutive forward spent Tuesday night on Derek Brassard’s wing, and the two went to work. Zuccarello fed Brassard for a beaut of a goal in the first period of their second of the back-to-back games. Brassard would strike again, feeding newcomer Benoit Pouliot for a third period goal. Apparently, one reason for the instant chemistry might be the that Brassard and Pouliot speak French, and it seems their Norwegian line mate is picking up a little Français as well. Can’t deny the chemistry though, and look for this line to stay together into the early parts of the regular season.
Another bright spot is the aptly named Jesper Fast. Fast didn’t end up on the score sheet, but you watched him and felt like he was a danger every time he was on the ice. He’s not a huge forward, but the guy is strong on his feet and is an effortless skater. Oh, and he he has some serious speed; just ask Taylor Pyatt, who seemed to be in slow motion in comparison to Fast and fellow Swede Oscar Lindberg. If Stepan holds out into the regular season, could they comprised the third line? Unlikely, but I’d bet Fast and Lindberg get a very long good look from Team AV.
Speaking of Vigneault, another forward caught his eye in the first week of camp. Danny Kristo, acquired from the Canadiens for Christian Thomas, has impressed his new coach. Kristo also seemed to be a danger every time he was on the ice, and could possibly make the roster in some capacity if his quality of play stays at a high level as camp rolls on.
As far as defense, Marc Staal seems to have no remaining ill effects from his eye injury and is wearing a custom visor that covers more of his face than I have ever seen without a full face mask. He went back to covering an uncanny amount of ice, and seems to have embraced Vigneault’s philosophy of defense joining the rush on a regular basis. John Moore continues to impress and should be penciled in on the second power play unit, with that effortless skating ability and booming point shot.
Now, not everything is peachy in Rangers camp. The aforementioned power play could not net a goal in four tries in the opening tilt against the Devils. Chris Kreider seems to have forgotten how to keep possession of the puck for longer than a few seconds, and is the biggest disappointment in the first week of camp. Again, Kreider will continue to grow under Vigneault, and may spend some more time in Hartford before solidifying a spot on the roster. Michael Del Zotto is mercifully invisible in his new role on the right side, but that may be a blessing. A new position may be just what Del Zotto needs to improve his inconsistent play.
The point is that the Rangers might just have the depth to move forward without Derek Stepan. Are any of the available options of top 6 caliber? Derek Brassard could find himself as a second line center should Stepan remain unsigned. He might even be able to make us forget about Stepan for a bit. If Stepan isn’t careful, he might find himself rendered an expendable hockey asset. As I’ve said, it’s only week one of camp, but there is hope for life without Stepan while the two sides figure out just how much will be able to be sacrificed in order to compromise.
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