The question facing the New York Rangers before they embark on their 2015-16 campaign isn't whether this group can win the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1993-94.
Rather, it's how do the pieces fit into the lineup?
"At this time I can honestly share with you we haven't made up our [minds]," Alain Vigneault said prior to the exhibition season finale, a 3-2 win over the Bruins at the Garden on Sept. 30. "We're still debating, going back-and-forth, there's been some good internal discussions and we've got a lot of people involved; a lot of our scouts are here and we're getting input from them also."
Two days later, Rangers decision makers debuted what is likely to be their opening night roster during a practice session at their training facility in Greenburgh. Derick Brassard centered the top line with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. The second line consisted of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Kevin Hayes. Viktor Stalberg, Oscar Lindberg and J.T. Miller made up the third line, while the fourth line was Dominic Moore, Jarret Stoll and Jesper Fast. Emerson Etem was the spare forward. The defense pairings of Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi, Marc Staal-Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle-Kevin Klein remained intact, and Dylan McIlrath was the seventh. Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta are the goaltenders.
By and large the core of the roster is the same as the teams that reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and the Eastern Conference Final last spring. Essentially the determinations reached by organizational decision makers was (A) who would be the second line right wing; (B) could Oscar Lindberg earn a NHL job and (C) who was the seventh defenseman?
When he met with reporters before the final preseason game, Vigneault announced he wanted to see Hayes on the Stepan's right side instead of Miller.
"I don't want to get into specifics," said Vigneault. Last season, Hayes recorded 17 goals and 45 points as a rookie third line center, while Miller finished last year with 10 goals and 23 assists.
"I liked J.T.'s effort, I thought he battled hard. [There] weren't a lot of quality scoring chances five-on-five. Is that a reflection of his play, his linemates play? Might be a combination of all of the above. It's important to see what [Hayes] can do at that position."
Although the triumvirate of Kreider-Stepan-Hayes was held off the scoresheet, Miller scored a second period goal in which he danced around Adam McQuaid before rifling a shot past Jonas Gustavsson.
Still for as eye-popping as the goal was, Vigneault values consistency in his players.
“There’s some moments where you see the skill set and you see the offensive potential," Vigneault said of Miller. "There’s some other moments where on his own he’s got to learn to make the right play at the right time, high percentage play with the puck. [He’s a] young player that is going through the process and will continue to improve.”
Whereas Vigneault views Miller as a work in progress, Lindberg won a roster spot by performing consistently. So much so that he was announced as the winner of the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award as the best rookie in training camp before the game.
"I think it started out good with the first game here in the Garden and I thought I played well the whole preseason," Lindberg said. "I think I learned a lot. I felt good the whole preseason."
As did Dylan McIlrath, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft who many had labeled as a bust since he had not advanced to the NHL level while others in his class--namely Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler and St. Louis winger Vladimir Tarasenko--went after he had been selected and had been promoted to significant roles with their teams. Unlike Fowler and Tarasenko, McIlrath is the proverbial physical, stay-at-home defenseman, a player whose size, mean streak and fistic abilities will be the measure of his worth.
While Vigneault did hint that McIlrath ability to be a deterrent could factor into the final decision making, it shouldn't go unnoticed that McIlrath was steadier than puck-mover Raphael Diaz during the competition for the last spot.
"I think I played pretty [well] the whole preseason. That's what I was trying to do coming into this camp, play steady and solid and show them that I belong." McIlrath said. "I think I showed [Vigneault] I can play earlier in the preseason."