The twofold explanation from Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton was pretty self-evident once he made the trade to send Vladislav Namestnikov to the Senators in exchange for minor-league defenseman Nick Ebert and a fourth-round pick on Monday night.
The move was made not only to clear the $4 million salary-cap hit carried by Namestnikov this season — minus the $750,000 retained by the Blueshirts — but also to make room for the influx of young forwards who populate the system.
“I think it’s a combo of everything,” Gorton said after Tuesday’s practice in Tarrytown, as the week-long layoff in their strange early-season schedule continued before they resume action on Saturday afternoon against the Oilers at the Garden. “We feel like we’re deep enough group at forward that we can replace Vlad, and there are going to be some opportunities. And at the same time, the cap always factors into what we’re doing.”
That draws eyes immediately to AHL Hartford, where the organization has two of its most hopeful forwards plying their trade — Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov. Only one weekend of that season has gone by, and the 19-year-old Kravtsov, playing his first pro hockey in North America, already raised some eyebrows by being a healthy scratch Sunday. The team didn’t want to get into specifics about why it happened, and when Gorton was asked if had any concern, he said, “No, not at all.”
But coach David Quinn had a more explanatory response.
“Everybody assumes that part of development is just putting someone out there and playing him, and that’s certainly not the case,” Quinn said. “Sometimes there are areas that a player needs to be aware of that are non-negotiable. And if that doesn’t happen, then you have to take the proper steps to make sure they understand that. It’s usually for one game and they go back in.
“And [Kravtsov is] 19, there’s a learning opportunity there for him.”
This phrase of things being “non-negotiable” is something Quinn used his first season behind the Rangers bench, often referring specifically to a player’s effort, and often in the defensive zone. He said it when he scratched Pavel Buchnevich early in that season, which led to a second-half surge and now his place on the red-hot top line with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad.
So it’s reasonable to take Gorton’s lack of concern at face value, and that this is all just part of the learning process for a young player. But now that another roster spot has been freed, the organization is going to want to see some growth from all of their young players, sooner rather than later.
“We feel like we have guys that are going to be able to assume a little bit more responsibility, here and throughout our organization,” Quinn said.
Right now, they have a situation where Ryan Strome is playing second-line center because none of their three young pivots — Chytil, Brett Howden, and Lias Andersson — grabbed it for themselves. Howden is playing a third-line role, while Andersson is playing on the fourth line along with the first penalty-killing tandem with Zibanejad.
Chytil went down after he had played 75 games for the Rangers this past season, and picked up two assists in two games with the Wolf Pack. He was given first crack at that second-line center role in training camp, but once it was clear he wasn’t going to get it, the organization figured it was best for him to go play big minutes in Hartford.
For the time being, it seems like Namestnikov’s absence will result in Greg McKegg sliding out of street clothes and into a fourth-line role, while Brendan Lemieux goes up to the third line with Howden and Jesper Fast, where he finished Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Senators in Ottawa.
But this trade, which Gorton said had been attempted in the summer but only came to fruition now, has opened up some more opportunity. As a front office, they have more salary-cap space, and on the ice, they have more opportunity for their young players to keep growing.
“Internally, we’ve been talking about giving guys opportunities,” Gorton said. “It just came to a head.”