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Changing the system: Alain Vigneault should roll with four skill lines

Bobby Bevilacqua

alain-vigneault-behind-bench-9-27

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Traditionally, a hockey team is structured with 12 forwards composing four different lines; the top two lines are the scoring lines and full of a team’s stars. The third line is more of a two-way line that can chip in scoring and play some defense. And the fourth line is the checking line, your penalty killers and usually not great at scoring.

Most coaches tend to try and structure their lines in this fashion and it’s how hockey has been played for a very long time. But this year, the Rangers need to try something different.

The group of forwards that the Rangers have brought into camp is the most talented group of players that I have seen since I started following the team closely. Buchnevich, Vesey and Zibanejad are some of the talented, young newcomers brought to New York in the offseason, and all of the offseason additions have injected a plethora of speed, skill and scoring prowess into the lineup.

Some of the signings like Nathan Gerbe and Michael Grabner are projected to be fourth liners, but they also have playmaking and scoring in their repertoire. Grabner scored 34 goals in his rookie season with the Islanders and has hit the double digit mark twice while Gerbe has two 16 goal seasons and scored 10 in his last fully healthy season (2014-15).

The Rangers’ forward group is so full of talent that Brandon Pirri, the team’s best performer in the preseason with four goals in four games, might not start on opening night despite his talent and impressive showing thus far.

With this in mind, the Rangers need to change their approach when creating the lines this season. Instead of the traditional four line structure, why not create a team with four lines that all have skilled players can play multiple facets of the game? Sure, the top two lines will still have the more talented players and your fourth line will still be somewhat of a checking or defensive line, but don’t limit players like Brandon Pirri or JT Miller to just top six or top nine duties.

Joe Fortunato from Blueshirt Banter wrote an article on Monday about how the Rangers should make JT Miller the fourth line center temporarily.  You can read that article HERE but here’s a snippet of the piece that explains his logic:

Miller is a natural center, and lined up there last year on the power play more often than not. Rather than running Pirri on the fourth line as a center — or not playing him at all — moving Miller into the fourth line center slot short term makes sense.

In that scenario you’re sort of losing the defense/PK fourth line, but four solid lines that are all skilled isn’t the worst thing in the world. That fourth line can still take tougher assignments (Fast and Grabner would be the wingers in my mind) and Rick Nash – Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello can handle the other share of the tough minutes.

Miller is naturally a center so the position isn’t new to him. While I think that he’s a better winger, he can handle center now that he’s had more experience in the league and is fully adapted. Fast and Grabner would be more than capable of picking up some defensive slack Miller may have, and the amount of speed and skill on that line is promising.

jt-miller-profile-1-5

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

This is a good strategy because it would allow the Rangers to give Pirri some quality time in the top nine, which would allow Vigneault to see if he A) fits into the system well and can produce in that position and B) see if the preseason was just a fluke or not.

The bottom six could look like this;

Jimmy Vesey-Kevin Hayes-Brandon Pirri

Michael Grabner-JT Miller-Jesper Fast

When Oscar Lindberg is healthy again, or Josh Jooris, then Pirri can rotate on the fourth line with Grabner if he is still playing well. That way you still have two excellent defensive players while Pirri gets his playing time and gets some scoring chances. If Pirri struggles, then Grabner goes in and you have the uber-defensive, penalty kill fourth line. No harm, no foul.

It’s important to see if Brandon Pirri can continue to play at a high level, but the reality is that he is fighting with Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich for a top-nine spot. With Buchnevich and Vesey being more important to the long-term future of the team, they need to play through their struggles and get quality minutes. Unless they totally stop playing effectively, Pirri shouldn’t be ahead of them.

pavel-buchnevich-full-body-9-27

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Alain Vigneault is also very good at spreading out ice-time, so it’s not like this fourth line would get eight minutes a night. You’ll see them get 10-12 minutes a night and AV would essentially have two third lines here, especially with Jesper Fast’s offensive improvements.

With the Rangers inefficiencies and question marks on defense, having four skill lines could wind up really helping them. Have the team play an aggressive, north-south offensive mindset that can come out and score a lot of goals, while still having lines that can play in every on-ice situation.

On top of that, it would create mismatches for opposing defenses. When the Rangers play the Capitals, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are on the ice nearly every time Alex Ovechkin is on. Then the third pairing can get the scraps because they’re playing against Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle on the fourth line.

But if you had a fourth line with JT Miller and Jesper Fast come on the ice right after Hayes, Vesey and Pirri get off, that’ll make coaches think twice about their defensive assignments and leave them vulnerable if they don’t adjust.

There are other ways that you can structure these four lines and still stick to the idea of playing four skill lines. JT Miller doesn’t have to play fourth line center, Brandon Pirri can. If AV adopts this idea and makes the fourth line more like a scoring line, then Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich could temporarily get some minutes there. It doesn’t really matter as long as the idea and the structure of it remains the same, and that’s the beauty of this.

While this isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a tactic that might wind up working for Vigneault and the Rangers. There’s not need to number the lines and stick to the traditional format. If Rick Nash plays best with Hayes and Vesey, then let him play there. It doesn’t matter that it’s the “third line.” JT Miller wouldn’t be centering the “fourth line” per say, just one of the four lines on the team that can score and play in all situations.

If the Rangers want to stay competitive and challenge some of the top teams in the East, they’re going to have to be different. A change in strategy and team construction could be exactly what they need to make a run to the playoffs again.

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Posted on October 6, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Only thing is Miller occasionally has some mental lapses which can be brutal in a defensive role.

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  2. I was saying this when we first started signing all these forwards. In 2014 we had 4 lines working well. Now I realize the 4th line was still your traditional set up but we seemed to have a good balance of ice time between the top 3 lines. So now that we have more talent that can score goals why not spread it out to 4 lines that can be sent out to score If we have a 4th line that has speed and scoring ability it will have to be a problem for other teams. The good thing about it is that since some nights some guys are playing better then others so whoever looks good that night can get a little more ice time. It’s no secret the team has a big problem with the defense this year and one way we can help that out is to have possession of the puck more. It takes pressure off the defense and should get us more goals. I think it’s definitely worth a shot to try this idea.

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  1. Pingback: Final battle for roster spots tonight as Rangers battle the Flyers; Jooris back in action |

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