Alain Vigneault has said he envisions Eric Staal playing the middle.
Jeff Gorton did his part. The Rangers general manager acquired a four-time All-Star and Stanley Cup winner in Eric Staal at the trade deadline to strengthen his club with hope of making a run at the Stanley Cup — something center Derick Brassard declared on Monday will happen, even if outsiders don’t believe so.
Now head coach Alain Vigneault must figure out the best way to utilize Marc Staal’s older brother to get the most out of the Rangers’ third big deadline acquisition in as many years.
In Eric Staal’s debut Monday night, a 2-1 win over the Blue Jackets, Vigneault initially deployed the 31-year-old forward as the third line center, pushing Kevin Hayes out to right wing. For the third period, Vigneault moved Staal to the left wing on a line with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. That reunited the familiar third line of Hayes between Oscar Lindberg and Victor Stalberg while shifting J.T. Miller to the right of center Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. The Rangers (37-20-6, 80 points) — who as of Tuesday were tied for the seventh best odds at winning the Cup at 14-to-1, according to Bovada — had 13 shots through two periods.
“There’s no doubt the passing was a little bit off and we tinkered with it a little bit to see if we could help in that area,” Vigneault said after Monday’s game.
Vigneault said before Monday’s game he “envision(s)” Staal playing the middle but said Staal’s ability to also play left wing was a “big bonus.” Hayes prefers to play center and has fared better there than on the wing, and Dominic Moore has been entrenched as the fourth-line center. Jesper Fast, who has a broken nose and missed Monday’s game with flu-like symptoms, had been getting top-six minutes but could be moved down when he returns.
The coach eventually wants to settle on a top line of Brassard, Zuccarello and someone else. That could end up being Rick Nash, who could return sometime this month from a deep bone bruise in his left leg. Vigneault said Friday Nash was seven-to-10 days away from beginning lower-body workouts.
There’s a lot for Vigneault to consider and he’ll have difficult decisions to make. What if he plays Staal on that top line and he develops chemistry with Brassard and Zuccarello? Would Vigneault reassemble the Kreider-Stepan-Nash line from the 2014 Cup run? Where would that leave Miller?
The Rangers were off Tuesday while holding Casino Night, their annual fundraiser to benefit the Garden of Dreams Foundation, at Gotham Hall. They’re 10-2-1 in their last 13 games and have won three straight. They’ll return to practice Wednesday before traveling to Pittsburgh, where they’ll begin a road back-to-back Thursday against two playoff teams in the Penguins and NHL-best Capitals.
Those will be great tests for a team Brassard believes is poised for a Cup run with a second Staal.
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