Rangers center Mika Zibanejad had plenty of time – worth five seasons – to build and refine the chemistry on his line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Those were the players then-coach Alain Vigneault gave him when he first joined the Rangers in 2016 after a trade from Ottawa, and over the years the trio made beautiful music together.
But Buchnevich was traded to St. Louis over the summer — mostly for salary cap reasons, partly to change the mix in the lineup — because the team wanted to bring in more spice at the cost of some skill. Now, a quarter into the season, it looks like the Rangers are still looking for a replacement for Buchnevich on the right side of the Kreider-Zibanejad line.
“I’ve played with Buchie and Kreids for five, six years,” Zibanejad said after the Rangers’ morning skate at the UBS Arena on Wednesday for their game against the rival Islanders. So long, playing with the same man. You get the chance to playing with some different guys, and I think that was fine… I don’t think anything changes in my game, or Kreids’s game, actually, [regardless of] who is the right winger.”
During the first 18 games, it was a revolving door of wingers for Zibanejad and Kreider. The season started with Kreider on the right and sophomore Alexis Lafreniere on the left. When second-line center Ryan Strome missed four games with COVID-19, freshman coach Gerard Gallant took the opportunity to play Artemi Panarin on the left with Zibanejad and Kreider for a couple of games.
When Strome returned, Gallant Kreider slid back to the left wing, putting newcomer Barclay Goodrow on the right. And when Filip Chytil missed three games with an upper body injury, Goodrow moved up to Chytil’s third-line position and rugged winger Sammy Blais played with Kreider and Zibanejad.
But Blais suffered a knee injury near the end of the season in the game against the Devils on November 14, and the carousel started again. Goodrow went back to the top line and in the final game against Buffalo, Gallant moved Goodrow out and tried another newcomer, Dryden Hunt, in that spot.
Hunt teamed up with Kreider and Zibanejad in training on Tuesday, but Gallant wasn’t sure if he would use that trio against the Islanders. He played with maybe a different tweak, with Julien Gauthier a possibility. The 6-4, 227-pound Gauthier, who was in and out of the lineup for the first 15 games, became a fixture when Blais was injured, and he had played well on the third line with Lafreniere and Chytil.
Kreider has scored 13 goals in Wednesday’s game, fourth in the league behind Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl (18) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Calgary’s Andrew Mangiapane (15). With the way he shot the puck, whoever gets the job to play with Zibanejad and Kreider doesn’t have to bear too much of the burden. Perhaps most importantly, that player just plays well enough to hold the spot for a while so that his linemates can get to know him a little bit.
“With some guys you click right away, and with some guys you have to understand a little more,” Zibanejad said. “And when you get that time to work together… you start to understand each other. I feel like it doesn’t always have to be the first game you play together, it clicks, or if it doesn’t, it never will. I mean I had the same with [Mats Zuccarello]. The first few games we played together, we didn’t click at all. But then we had to talk a little more, play together a little more, and then it worked.”