They haven't yet played a game together, but it seems almost certain that the Rangers will go into the season with Brad Richards centering Marian Gaborik. Richards has the ability to control the game and distribute the puck, while his projected Slovakian linemate has proven he can score in the NHL. Throw in Richards' career success on the power play, and looks like we are more likely to see the Gaborik from 2009-10 than the one we saw last season.
With that said, it takes three to make a line in the NHL - short handed situations and overtime excepted - and finding a linemate for the high priced duo will be amongst the first orders of business for John Tortorella and the coaching staff. Enter the prospective candidates...
Sean Avery Avery is yet to score more than 18 goals in as season - a feat he accomplished back in 2006-07 when he scored ten for the Kings, before being traded to the Rangers and potting eight more in 29 appearances - but his grit and ability to get in front of the net would add a dimension that's missing to the top line. Working against Avery is his inconsistency and a strained relationship with head coach John Tortorella. Just like last season, there's questions as to whether Avery will even make it to the line-up, let alone challenge for the first line wing spot. Avery has paired with Gaborik successfully on occasions, and would be worth taking a look at during training camp and the preseason.
Prediction: Avery might get a game or two in the preseason with either Richards, Gaborik or both, but will ultimately end up a healthy scratch
Brandon Dubinsky The advantage Dubinsky brings to the line, is not only his scoring and playmaking, but some additional size and strength. The young winger signed a new contract in the off-season and has continued to trend his stats in each of his four full seasons as an NHLer. Perhaps the biggest thing working against Dubinsky is that he's already part of a fairly successful second line that includes Artem Anisimov and Ryan Callahan. Tortorella may be loathe to break up a second scoring line, figuring he can get more out of someone else.
Prediction: Tortorella will try a few different combinations, but will likely keep the "Blue Blood Line" intact.
Derek Stepan There's been some early reports from the Rangers beat writers, that Tortorella will look to move Stepan to wing to start the season. The sophomore forward is probably more likely to slot in onto the right wing of the third line, but if Wolski doesn't work out, Stepan could be the one who slots into the spot. Stepan demonstrated last year the ability to play with almost any linemate, and his utility gives Tortorella plenty of options. As a third liner, Stepan perhaps gives the Rangers a little bit more of a scoring threat deeper into the line-up, than if he was simply supporting the top line.
Prediction: Stepan ends up on the third line to start the season.
Wojtek Wolski The Polish born winger played himself down the depth chart last season, thanks to some uninspired games where he took the foot off the pedal. The 25 year old wing's career has been one of unmet potential to date, and there's significant questions as to whether he's got the drive to be the top line performer his talent suggests. It got so bad at the end of last season, that there were reports the Rangers were considering buying out the final year of his contract in order to go another direction. Ultimately that didn't happen, and so he'll get one more chance with the team. On the positive side, Wolski has the talent to keep up with his more noted linemates, and the Rangers would likely to get the best offensive bump of any players they put on that line. That fact alone, might be the biggest selling point on whether to give him a shot there or not.
Prediction: Wolski will get the first chance, and will do enough in camp and the preseason to get the first shot on the top line. Whether he'll still be there by the time the Rangers open up MSG in late October is up to him.
Mats Zuccarello The undersized Norwegian will likely have to hope for an injury to make the line-up, but may get a look at some playing time with Richards and Gaborik as an alternative to Wolski. Zuccarello clearly has offensive skills, but his strength lets him down at the NHL level, and he needs more space to operate. Playing with Gaborik and Richards is likely to give him more space. On the downside, with Zuccarello, Richards and Gaborik all on the same line, goals will likely have to come from the perimeter or off the rush.
Prediction: Zuccarello may get a look or two, but will ultimately end up on the outside as a 14th forward as the Rangers try to figure out what to do with him.