New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, never one to shy away from short- and long-term lineup experimentation, has been in the midst of a flurry of it, trying a myriad of combinations to spark his team’s 5-on-5 play of late. His latest overhaul bred success Jan. 23, when yet another group of new-look forward combinations sparked a 6-2 home victory over the Florida Panthers.
When it comes to one particular player, however, Gallant needs to put aside his pencil and well-worn eraser and grab a Sharpie. The coach needs to write Filip Chytil’s name into the top six in permanent marker, starting now.
The 23-year-old power center looked really good again in the win over the Panthers, manning the middle on the (once again) re-formed Kid Line. Chytil recorded four shots and was a plus-1 in 16 minutes of ice time, engaged throughout, attacking the net with his speed and size as he drove play for his familiar linemates. He scored an empty-net goal and added an assist, while his left wing Alexis Lafreniere scored for the first time in 18 games and also had assist. Their right wing, Kaapo Kakko, added two assists.
In his last nine games, Chytil has recorded five goals and four assists while posting a plus-4 rating. Gallant is comfortable playing him in all situations, with Chytil’s sound defensive game and responsibility in his own end now impossible to ignore. With each contest, the 21st overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft reminds his teammates and coach that he can be a nightmare through the neutral zone and in the opponents’ end, difficult to knock off the puck if defenders can even overcome his elusiveness and quickness to reach him.
Chytil’s Game, Confidence Are Finally Soaring
Chytil might never be great on faceoffs. He’s at an abysmal 38.6 percent for the season after a combined 6-for-17 performance against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 19 and Florida. Yet there’s a small-sample size silver lining, as he was improving before the rough two-game stretch – in the 11 games prior, he won 50.0 percent (51 of 102) of his draws.
The point is, proficiency at the faceoff dot can be achieved by working at it. As with the rest of his game, it appears as if Chytil is doing just that. And it’s why Gallant needs to realize that Chytil is ready to run and to relax the reins by giving him an open-ended stay on the second line.
The Rangers have been waiting for this across five-plus seasons, ones that were abbreviated by injury and trips to the minors as the Kromeriz, Czech Republic native tried to find his footing in the NHL. It’s fair to question whether the organization has handled his development correctly, but that’s irrelevant now. All that matters is that the 6-foot-2, 206-pound Chytil looks to finally be on the verge of getting all of his considerable talents in sync.
Chytil moved within one goal of matching a career high with his 13th against the Panthers, and his 26 points (in 39 games) are a personal best. Confidence seems to ooze from him these days when he’s on the ice – a departure from past years, when Chytil would often look unsure, seemingly questioning whether he belonged.
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So while there’s no point in wondering about what the Rangers could have done differently with Chytil in the past, there’s every reason to draw from the experience and make the right decision for his future. That means pushing him up from his familiar third-line assignment and giving him the consistently consequential minutes and responsibilities that he’s mostly been denied so far, yet managed to put himself on an upward trend all the same.
It appears Gallant more or less did that against the Panthers, with Chytil’s trio essentially serving as a “2A” line, about equaling the ice time of the Jimmy Vesey-Vincent Trocheck-Barclay Goodrow unit. Continuing that trend is going to be important for the Rangers, both on the ice this season and off of it beyond 2022-23.
The dynamic center the Blueshirts envisioned at the draft nearly six years ago finally seemed to emerge in last season’s playoffs, with Chytil’s electric play sparking the Kid Line into a pivotal role as the Rangers reached the Eastern Conference Final. Rather than commit to him as their No. 2 center going forward, though, the club still saw him as too much of an unproven commodity and signed Trocheck to a seven-year, $39 contract.
Will Chytil Stay Long-Term Without Top-Six Guarantee?
Trocheck, a Gallant favorite from their days with the Panthers, has been mostly good, recording 32 points (not to mention 10 hit posts), winning faceoffs and providing some of the speed and snarl the Rangers yearned for last offseason. Trocheck’s long-term presence on the roster, however, is problematic when it comes to Chytil.
The cap-crunched Rangers don’t want to pay a third-line center significant money, but that’s what will end up happening if they sign Chytil to a long-term deal – whether it’s Chytil or Trocheck who mans the 3C spot. Finishing up a two-year, $4.6 million contract, Chytil will have arbitration rights this summer and is two seasons from unrestricted free agency. He could double his current salary this summer.
Can the Rangers convince Chytil to stay long-term without offering him a clear path to a regular top-six role? Trocheck, with a full no-move clause for the two seasons after this one and a contract that’s all but unmovable anyway, does a lot of good things. Having him centering the second line over Chytil, however, probably won’t be good for the organization’s long-term health.
With arbitration rights and UFA status drawing close, Chytil has most of the leverage. And his camp knows the last thing the Rangers want to do is trade him to save money and watch him become a top-six stalwart elsewhere. As much as Trocheck brings on a nightly basis, Chytil is a rare commodity, a big, power-skating pivot with elite hands, the likes of which every NHL team would love to have on their roster. Chytil’s advanced metrics are essentially equal to Trocheck’s, and Chytil has managed to post those numbers while generally operating in the bottom six this season.
Across five-plus years and three head coaches, the Rangers have waited for Chytil to arrive. Affording him this offseason will be difficult. Can they afford to not attempt to keep him, though? That’s why the organization has to send the signal now – that Chytil’s path in a Blueshirt leads upward into the top six, that the club is committed to him as a piece of its future core, that they need him.
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And it’s clear that the Rangers also need him as much this season as they do future ones. The Eastern Conference is a powerhouse, with any extended stretch of futility likely to drop playoff contenders into unforgiving spots in the standings. Maximizing Chytil’s impact could prove pivotal to the Blueshirts’ postseason hopes.
Gallant’s lines against the Panthers teamed Panarin with No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad. That arrangement seems likely to be temporary, though, as the coach usually divides up the two all-world offensive talents in order to create matchup headaches for opponents. Revisiting the brief Panarin-Chytil experiment from earlier this season makes the most sense.
The partnership was beginning to pay dividends, the duo posting a Corsi for percentage just below 50, with the Rangers scoring six goals and giving up three in 82:52 at even strength with the duo on the ice. The Blueshirts would be best served in finding out just how good Panarin and Chytil can be together – especially considering that Panarin and Trocheck don’t seem to fit together.
Trocheck, Panarin Aren’t Meshing as Linemates
Trocheck was brought in to be an ostensible upgrade in the middle over the departed Ryan Strome, and in many ways he has been. Trocheck, though, simply hasn’t been able to get on Panarin’s wavelength the way Strome did, with Gallant going so far as to call out the pair after the 3-1 loss to the Bruins last week. The Trocheck-Panarin union has managed to post a 57.9 CF%, but it’s accounted for 14 goals for and 20 against. That’s certainly not Strome-Panarin territory, as the Rangers scored 115 goals at 5-on-5 and gave up only 74 during their 178-game partnership from 2019-22.
Given the uncertainty as to whether Panarin and Trocheck will ever hit it off, giving Chytil the assignment with the Bread Man seems like the clearly obvious way to go for the rest of the season. That would also likely benefit Trocheck, whose best stretch of play in his first season with the Rangers came with Chris Kreider on his left flank, the two straight-ahead forwards finding obvious and immediate chemistry. Trocheck is a Gallant favorite, but it remains something of a mystery as to why the coach continues to try to force a round Trocheck peg into a square hole on Panarin’s unit, when Trocheck simply seems the better fit with Kreider.
Anointing Chytil as the No. 2 center would simply be good business for the Rangers at this point. Placing confidence in him would demonstrate the organization’s commitment to a meaningful role for Chytil going forward, in theory making him more comfortable with the idea of inking a longer-term deal with the team. Doing could also give the Rangers their best lineup for 2022-23, something Gallant has been searching for since the start of the season.
The Rangers have been waiting for Chytil long enough. It looks like he’s finally here. Accordingly, it’s time to fully turn him loose with a top-six assignment – one that the club surely believed he would grow into when the 21st pick of the 2017 draft rolled around.
I’m a resident of the Chicago area by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to the Midwest in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.