Let’s take a gander at next season’s Kitchener Rangers.
Because, it’s never too early to talk hockey, even with the heat cranking up a notch in these parts.
Word around the league is that the Rangers will be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
The claims come on the news that the team’s top six players — Ryan Murphy, Frank Corrado, John Gibson, Matt Puempel, Josh Leivo and Tobias Rieder — will not be back next season.
Of course, all six can return as overager players, but they're all earmarked for the AHL or NHL.
Toss in departing OAs Domenic Alberga, Derek Schoenmakers and Joel Vienneau, and that’s nine veteran bodies on the move.
The Rangers will take a step back next season. But I don’t think it will be as bad as everyone is making out.
The club’s defence will be strong yet again. The lineup will still boast a few bounceback candidates and intriguing snipers. And, if goaltending emerges — that’s a big if at this point — the Rangers may actually surprise a few folks.
I’m not talking conference title. But chatter of last place in the league may be a bit harsh.
Here is a take on how it could shape up next season. These are not lines released by the team, but trios I’m forming for the sake of seeing what the roster could look like.
Note, the promise of potential would obviously change if the Rangers deal some of their high end talent.
Brent Pedersen-Radek Faksa-Justin Bailey
Notes: Radek Faksa is no lock to return. As a first-round draft pick, and a rebuilding team in Dallas, he could crack the Stars’ roster. It’s either the NHL or OHL for the Czech import. I see him coming back to Kitchener after a disappointing season plagued by injuries. After a strong rookie season that saw him score 29 goals, he took a step back last year and potted just nine. He missed 29 games due to injury and world junior commitments and all signs are pointing to one final year in junior before moving on to the pros. The hope is that he returns healthy and if so, has to be the team’s No. 1 centre.
Justin Bailey is coming off a breakout rookie season with 17 goals and 36 points. He hit a bit of a wall midway through the year — as most greenhorns do — but rebounded in the playoffs to score some highlight reel type markers. A move to the top lines didn’t work as well as expected this season, but next time around he’ll be older, wiser and more developed to handle the job. As one of the most dynamic offensive weapons, his time for the top line is now.
Same goes for Brent Pedersen. Now a third year player, he provides some muscle, grit and goal scoring ability to fit nicely with his quick, skilled linemates. I can see him playing a role akin to Ben Thomson from two years back, when the rugged winger battled for pucks alongside Michael Catenacci and Tobias Rieder, only with more offensive upside.
Ben Thomson-Matia Marcantuoni-Eric Ming
Notes: Ben Thomson is eligible for AHL duty as a New Jersey Devils draft pick, but I think the veteran comes back to the Aud. He saw a 10-point dip in production this past year from 2012 and would benefit from a killer OA season. The team lacks leadership and he’d be a good fit to bring along some of the youngsters.
The Pittsburgh Penguins see Marcantuoni as a penalty killing third-line guy. So, the Rangers will continue to develop those attributes, but with his speed, he also has to be a player who can score in the OHL. The former No. 1 pick by the Rangers has the skill to do it and is one of a handful of players who needs to take a big offensive step forward in order for Kitchener to surprise.
Ming back as an OA is a smart move. He plays a variety of rolls and I can see him turning into a 20-goal guy as one of the team’s three 20-year-olds. This veteran line would be a nice complement to the younger top unit.
Darby Llewellyn-Curtis Meighan-Josh Sterk
Notes: After two years as the fourth line centre, Meighan deserves a promotion. He’s one of the team’s top faceoff winners and while he won’t score a ton of goals, he’s a responsible two-way player.
His stable presence up the middle opens the ice up for his the offensive-minded Sterk and Llewellyn. Both have much to prove, for different reasons. Llewellyn was a sparkplug, but got lost in the shuffle as a rookie and didn’t see much playing time.
Sterk struggled in his own end and was a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs. But scouts continue to rave about the third-year player, saying he has the potential to be a late bloomer. Sterk has the confidence to be a prime time guy, but needs to start delivering on it.
Jim Soper-Mike Davies-European import
Notes: This unit will likely fluctuate throughout the season with different wingers — such as Ty Learn and Kegan Blasby — getting some minutes.
No doubt Davies anchors this unit — either down the middle or on the wing — since he was the club’s No. 1 selection in this year’s draft.
I’m putting Soper on the wing since he’s 18 and brings some experience and offensive flare to the ice.
The Rangers will add a second European import with Rieder almost certainly bound for the AHL. The team hasn’t said what position it wants to fill with the pick, but after a recent surge in blueliner signings, a forward makes sense (though the team could always grab a netminder).
Kitchener received Sudbury’s first round import selection in the six-player swap this past January. Slating the Euro on the fourth line takes a bit of pressure off the newcomer initially and allows the team to move the kid up as he gets used to the league.