The Rangers are still trying to figure out their most effective fourth-line combination, which is why Will Cuylle was brought back up from AHL Hartford for the previous two games after he skated in his first two NHL contests before the All-Star break.
Cuylle, who along with his linemates had a particularly rough game Wednesday night against the Canucks, was reassigned to the Wolf Pack on Thursday. It was one of two moves the Rangers needed to make in order to accommodate Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola — who were brought in from the Blues via trade Thursday afternoon in exchange for a conditional first-round pick in 2023, a conditional fourth-round pick in 2024, Sammy Blais and Hunter Skinner. The other move the Rangers made was waiving defenseman Libor Hajek.
The fourth line will probably be the next area of focus for Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury.
“We’re certainly still looking at ways to improve the group,” Drury said when asked if he’ll make any more moves between now and the March 3 trade deadline. “I can see your point about [the fourth line], and it’ll be one we look at for sure, as well as a few others and see what we can do between now and the deadline.”
Head coach Gerard Gallant has deployed 19 different fourth-line combinations over 51 games. The most recent trio of Cuylle, Blais and Jake Leschyshyn had a fiery game against the Flames, but it fizzled out rather quickly in a turnover-riddled performance against the Canucks.
Blais is no longer a Ranger and Cuylle is back in Hartford, so there will be another fourth-line combo that takes the ice Friday night against the Kraken.
The Rangers have to decide how they want their fourth line to look and play. Whether it’s a more physical version, such as when Dryden Hunt and Ryan Reaves — who are both no longer with the club — bookended the bottom unit, or a speedier version, like the Tyler Motte (now with Senators) and Jonny Brodzinski (now in Hartford) wing-center tandem in last season’s playoffs, the Rangers need to construct the line with an identity in mind.
There are plenty of options, but it’s up to management and the coaching staff to discover which fourth-line style of play works the best for the club.
The decision to send Cuylle back to Hartford, however, is probably what is best for the 21-year-old right now. Playing top-six minutes in the AHL is much more beneficial for Cuylle’s development than barely seeing the ice in a fourth-unit role in the NHL. The fourth line may be where the Rangers envision Cuylle in the long run, but there is still work to be done on his game that is better sorted out in the minors.
With Cuylle back in Hartford, expect Julien Gauthier to draw back into the lineup after serving as a healthy scratch in the previous two games. Gauthier would likely take precedence over Vitali Kravtsov, who is not built for the fourth line. By drawing penalties and playing a physically imposing game, Gauthier is better suited to flank the bottom unit.
Either Barclay Goodrow or Jimmy Vesey will presumably be bumped down from the top-nine to the fourth line.