After the trade of Vladislav Namestnikov to the Senators, the Rangers have just 21 players on their roster, further constraining what were already limited options for head coach David Quinn. In all, the Rangers have used only 21 players through the first three games, including the aforementioned Namestnikov.
The only player on the roster who hasn't played, is Micheal Haley. A depth forward who can play some occasional 4th line minutes in certain circumstances, but not really a guy you'd consider running for more than say 5-7 minutes a game.
So Quinn is presented with few options following a pretty one-sided 4-1 loss to the Oikers, in which they struggled to generate much in the way of offense, while giving up 3 goals with all or most of their top line, along with the Marc Staal - Tony DeAngelo unit on the ice.
In fact, defensively the coach looks to go into Thursday night's game with the same pairings as he has for the last two games, though there's still the possibility that Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei will ultimately be reunited ahead of the trip to Newark...
Realistically there's not that many options. With two rookies in Libor Fox and Adam Fox, as well as the relatively inconsistent duo of DeAngelo and Skjei, there's a lot of areas that need to be covered. There's also Staal's limited ability to play big minutes in the latter part of his career, leaving really only Trouba as a guy who can be relied on. He could of course shift Brendan Smith back to the blueline on a more full-time basis, but he's impressed the coach so much at forward, it seems unlikely...at least in the short term.
GM Jeff Gorton could also call up Ryan Lindgren, though as a relatively unproven rookie, the same sort of inconsistencies are likely to be manifested, so he's more likely an option to replace Hajek than any real serious threat to Staal or Skjei.
So instead the coach has elected to tinker with the forward lines. Ryan Strome, who won the second line center spot out of camp has not really gelled with Kaapo Kakko or Chris Kreider, in what has been a wholly underperforming second unit. In three games, the trio have just one goal and three assists, one of those coming courtesy of Kreider's time on the power play with the top line.
Thursday will see the first center change with Brett Howden switching places with Strome in what the coach hopes will be a positive move. The challenge may very well remain though, because neither Howden, Kreider nor Kakko have demonstrated much ability with holding onto the puck and setting up the goal, all prefer to go to the net...which could lead to some challenges on the defensive side. That's not to say Strome was doing any of that of course, nor that Lias Andersson would be any different, but the fact remains, there's no one on that line who can control the play.
The third line meanwhile, has struggled to find any sort of consistency on the left wing. Namestnikov started there the first two games, and was replaced by Lemieux following the trade. This week Smith gets an opportunity, which seems odd, but perhaps again just a reflection of the realities of the team right now.
Lemieux looks to slot back down tot he fourth line, where he'll pair up with Andersson and Greg McKegg.
Meanwhile we're seeing some signs of life down in Hartford with the Pack going 3-0-1 to start the season, taking their first lloss of the season Sunday in the shootout, despite leading up until the last 20 seconds of regulation. Filip Chytil has goals in consecutive games, albeit the first as an empty netter, but if he can keep it up we may see him back sooner rather than latter.
Conversely Vitali Kravtsov seems to be struggling to adjust, and one can only hope that he finds what's missing soon...the Rangers could use some more offense.