The “Kid Line:” What it Means to the NY Rangers

by Deb Seymour

Just prior to the NHL playoffs, everyone tends to speculate about how the offensive lines for the contending teams will look; and even speculate, to some extent, about the defensive pairings. Now, teams with multiple roster spots hit by injury leave more open to question in terms of their playoff lineups. But even the mostly or fully healthy teams may still see some reshuffling of their lineup depending on whom their playoff opponent may be — and not just in the first round. It’s not been unknown for teams that advance in the playoffs to reorganize their lineups depending on the strengths and weaknesses of subsequent opponents, and especially as they move deeper into the playoffs.

Well, the NY Rangers are in the NHL playoffs again for the first time since 2017. The bubble appearance of 2020 barely counts, as it was a play-in and not a play-off series; it happened smack in the middle of a pandemic; it followed upon a truncated season; there was no home ice advantage for almost any team; and, most of all, although the team that ultimately hoisted the Stanley Cup that year may disagree (that would be the Tampa Bay Lightning), the entire playoff situation felt kind of ad hoc and let’s face it, not very real.

But as we shift into the first series of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, the inaugural offensive lines and defensive pairings seem pretty etched in stone for the Rangers — along with the man who will play in net for them. The third line, the so-called “kid line,” includes (from left wing to right wing) Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko; and it should come as no surprise to anyone. Has the third line matched the offensive output of the top two lines for the Rangers this season? Clearly not. Have we seen improvement in all three players over the course of season, however? Clearly yes.

On right wing, Kaapo Kakko, unfortunately for both him and the Rangers, spent a goodly portion of the season on injured reserve. Yet the spark we’ve seen from him since both of his returns to action over the past few weeks represent a player who’s ready to play even though he’s young, has had a career marred by injury to date, and counts as part of his service time two years in which a pandemic limited ice time for not just Kakko, but everyone in the league. Overall, though, Kakko’s made the most of his injury-limited ice time this season. Here are a few stats to back that up:

Source: Hockey Reference. https://www.hockey-reference.com/players/k/kakkoka01.html

Some noteworthy numbers from Kakko’s three-year graphic above include fewest games played in the current season (43); proportionally fewer goals (7) but more assists (11) than last season in which he played more games (48); more points (18) to last year’s points (17); and the two non-advanced stats that I find most significant: a. highest +/- of his short, three-year career (9 versus 3 last season and -26 in his rookie year); and b. a slightly higher shot percentage this season (11.3 versus 11.1 and 9.2 the two previous seasons). None of these numbers will exactly knock your socks off; but a minute more of average time on ice per game seems to have made a difference — though advanced analytics will show there’s still room for improvement.

Filip Chytil’s in a different situation than his two wingers, given his longer tenure in the NHL. Elsewhere in this blog, previous to this season, we did a breakdown of where his strengths and weaknesses lay (https://wordpress.com/post/bigapplebitesports.com/366); but head coach Gerard Gallant challenged him to “play like Mika” a month or two back — and the difference in his play became noticeable. Below appears Chytil’s stat graphic:

Source: Hockey Reference: https://www.hockey-reference.com/players/c/chytifi01.htmlA

As in previous years, Chytil missed time due to injury. He was also a healthy scratch for several games — and the assumption is that Gallant scratched him in order to send a message: improve your play or you’ll get benched. Chytil’s point total from this season is the same as last year’s, with the distribution between goals and assists the same, as well. In most categories, his numbers were down from last season — which may not bode well for his future as a Ranger — but since the healthy scratch phase he’s picked it up and is skating better from end to end and has scored a couple of goals and assists. Chytil’s had some revolving partners on the ice and has been asked to play wing here and there, which may also have been a factor in his early lack of production during the season.

Last but not least, on left wing, Alexis Lafreniere’s gamesmanship on the ice has been fun to watch this season. A sophomore player, Lafreniere’s numbers may not look like he’s destined to be the next Artemi Panarin — but he’s young and it’s still pretty early in his career, and so who can know for sure?

Source: Hockey Reference: https://www.hockey-reference.com/players/l/lafreal01.html

Lafreniere’s 5-on-5 scoring has been the most noteworthy of his achievements this season, and his +/- has gone up since last year — indicating he’s definitely more of a presence when he’s on the ice than in his rookie season. He’s played more games, scored more goals, and had more assists, all while switching lines several times throughout the season depending on who else was hurt and unavailable to play in any given stretch. His penalty minutes have gone up proportionally to more games played — but it’s not just that he’s played more games. He’s played with more aggressiveness and intensity, partially represented by the much larger number of hits this year. He’s shown gamesmanship and strength on the ice, and he looks like he belongs. In my opinion, we haven’t yet come close to seeing what Lafreniere’s ceiling may be in the NHL… just give him some time and some playoff experience.

And so what does all this mean for the Rangers, heading into their first playoffs in five years? The third line — the kid line — has between them averaged about 14 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season. This means they aren’t just filler bodies on the team — they’re expected to play and pull their weight. Will any of them score like Chris Kreider (also profiled in this blog a few weeks ago)? Likely not. But should we expect them to? Naturally not. It’s just not how the team is constructed at the moment. We may see some line changes during games that won’t leave this line intact, and that shouldn’t be surprising. But have they become crucial to the character and profile of this team? For each in their own way, yes they have. And for at least the playoff run, for as long as it lasts and if they all stay healthy, we can expect to see that continue.

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