Heading into this season, the New York Rangers have the opportunity to roll four lines that may be even better than the ones that took them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. Unfortunately, their own head coach may stop them from doing so.
A relatively quiet signing in August, Brandon Pirri has since torn it up as a top-nine forward and power play specialist in the preseason. Pirri has historically been a point producer, though his defensive reputation has left plenty to be desired.
Hence the conundrum in hand for Alain Vigneault, a coach that has an abundance of talented forwards and a vacancy on his “defensive” fourth line. Pirri could be the key to the Rangers success, but only if Vigneault lets him be.
Vigneault has often spoken about his desire to have his fourth line be specifically delegated with the task of handling defensive and penalty killing shifts, even going as far as to playing inferior forwards because they fit that stereotype. Unless the team makes a transaction, the Rangers currently have too many “skill” forwards for the top nine, meaning one forward should have to trickle down onto the fourth line.
Under Vigneault’s line of thinking, however, that just doesn’t work, as “defensive” and “skilled” appear to be mutually exclusive in his system.
The top nine is expected to consist of nine of Pavel Buchnevich, Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Brandon Pirri, Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey, Mika Zibanejad, and Mats Zuccarello. Jesper Fast is an obvious option to trickle down due to his defensive proficiency, joining Michael Grabner as clear-cut favorites to start the season on the fourth line. After Fast, the ten forwards battling for nine spots leave a problem for Vigneault based on his usual thinking.
Kreider, Miller, Nash, Stepan, Zibaenjad, and Zuccarello are guaranteed to start the season in the top nine. That leaves Buchnevich, Hayes, Pirri, and Vesey as four candidates for three top nine spots.
Hayes is a tremendous playmaker that is among the top young talents in the NHL, so his exclusion from the top nine would be a massive mistake.
Buchnevich and Vesey could be demoted to the fourth line as an attempt to lower expectations, but by Vigneault’s thinking, placing rookies in important defensive roles would be less than ideal. Pirri is leftover as the man to fill the fourth line center vacancy, especially considering his ability to play center.
As previously stated, however, Pirri is an offense-first forward. Vigneault has other options that despite having poor on-ice results, are still considered defense-first forwards.
Josh Jooris would be a fine fourth line center if healthy, while Maxim Lapierre appears to be an option despite all the evidence pointing at his ineffectiveness. Despite Jooris being a fine fourth-line center, should Vigneault select him, it means sacrificing the idea that you can have four lines play offense consistently. Opposing teams would have no breaks on defense, as New York could ice their “defensive” fourth line of Grabner-Pirri-Fast, and have a former 30-goal scorer in Grabner, an offensive weapon in Pirri, and a former top six forward in Fast.
The ability to roll four lines and still threaten offensively at all times is something even the 2014 Rangers couldn’t necessarily do, as their fourth line of Derek Dorsett-Dominic Moore-Brian Boyle was not nearly as adept at scoring.
It all will come down to if Vigneault is willing to give Brandon Pirri the opportunity to play on his “specialized” line. Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast should be able to make up for any of Pirri’s faults, and his youth could signal the possibility of learning the defensive aspect of the game on the fly.
Pirri could assist a previously paltry power-play for New York, while the Rangers penalty kill would be unaffected. The Rangers would have Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast, and perhaps J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello as penalty killers, making the need for a fourth line center to kill penalties obsolete.
The ability to roll four offensive lines far outweighs the risk of playing Pirri in Vigneault’s typical defensive role, but Vigneault must recognize that himself.
And it’s not as if the Rangers are without options if Pirri, or one of the other rookies have a bad night. They currently have a highly flexible roster, and exercising that flexibility comes with minimal risk. New York has the potential to have four offensively threatening lines, something very few NHL teams could claim. Alain Vigneault must make the right decision to help the team take the next step.