Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gaborik Primary: Which Candidates Should Get First Chance To Be "Running-Mates"

Being that Gaborik is officially said to be playing tomorrow versus Buffalo at the Garden it is time to take a look at who will and maybe more importantly who should get the job of being his line-mates.  In the buildup to his comeback it has been all but assumed that Frolov would be his left wing and that the only debate to have was about the center with two consistent names in the conversation; Derek Stepan and Erik Christensen.  Since I prefer a little out of the box thinking I will try some on the topic and see what develops.  In doing so I will take some political background and mesh it with this current race to be the running-mates for Gaborik.

I have previously said that the best line for the Rangers and Gaborik would be pairing Gaborik up with Dubinsky and Anisimov.  Obviously with as well as the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan combination has played early in the year, not so much the last 2, I do not see Tortorella splitting that line, so let’s take them out of the equation.  The other guys that can be automatically eliminated are Boogaard, Prust, with Fedotenko, and White being extreme longshots.  That basically leaves some combination of Avery, Frolov, Stepan, Christensen and Boyle to combine with Gaborik.  My problem with the common mindset of sticking Gaborik with Frolov and either Stepan or Christensen is it is based on the idea that Gaborik is going to get those other players jump started from their current struggles.  I have no doubt that Gaborik is capable of doing that with the skill he plays with and the attention he draws from opposition players.  My question is whether he should.
Before this season possibly, well likely is more accurate, the last center on this roster I ever would have suggested playing with Gaborik would have been Brian Boyle.  In my defense the insurgent candidate Brian Boyle we see this season is nothing like the man that was wearing the same jersey a season ago.  Obviously there are limitations to Boyle’s game in playing with a skilled player like Gaborik in that Boyle is not going to create for Gaborik the way a Christensen or Stepan potentially could, nor can Boyle skate as fast as Gaborik.  What Boyle can bring to a Gaborik line other than obvious of his size is some protection as he proved last night when he jumped in for Del Zotto and a player who is actually playing with his own confidence based on his play so far this year.  If it was Boyle then I would probably go with Avery as the other winger as even though for me he has been pretty quiet lately he has played with Gabby before and will also take some attention away while providing some protection.  Obviously this is not the most skilled pair to put with a player of Gaborik’s talent but they each bring aspects that could mesh well.
The “incumbents” of Frolov and either Stepan and Christensen do possess more skill than the candidates I have nominated for the position of Gaborik running mates, but none of the three have really done anything to earn the job. 
Alex was seen as an incumbent to play with Marian from the moment he signed with the club.  Together they played well early in the preseason but didn’t show much in the regular year before the Gaborik injury.  In the time since Frolov has been so bad at finishing he is now known as Friggins to many or Higgins 3.1 to me as he is evoking nightmares of the snake bitten mess that was Christopher Higgins offensive season with the Rangers.  The difference in this case though is that at least Higgins played the defensive side, and killed penalties to make up for his lack of offensive finishing.  With a guy who has a history of being a productive goal scorer you are always one goal away from him potentially getting hot, but the problem is he still has to score that one and for my money Frolov hasn’t scored a legit goal this season. 
Erik has been his same maddening self so far this season showing the flash of skill that could have him as a top line center and then the lousy play that could put him in the AHL.  The skill and past chemistry with Gaborik certainly bodes well for his candidacy as well as the fact that when he doesn’t play with Gaborik Christensen is basically useless to the hockey team, but is that really worth rewarding?  To add to it Christensen is clearly in the doghouse of Tortorella as he is the one that is called out the most frequently in public for whatever reason in demanding more of his play.  A week ago I thought he was going to be the guy to get the first shot to center Gaborik upon return but not so much today.
The newcomer to the scene this year Derek Stepan had a tremendous preseason, playing early with Frolov and Gaborik and later with Avery and Fedotenko to the point that he forced the Rangers hand in keeping him to start the season.  In his NHL debut he goes out and scores a hat-trick versus the very team the Rangers will play tomorrow night and with that debut is deemed the next big thing by Rangers fans.  I warned people that the goal production would not keep up as in reality he is a 15-20 goal guy, but I did not think the drop off in production would be to the point it has been where Stepan is scoreless in goals since opening night and no points in his last 10.  Beyond that his overall level of played dropped to the point where he was demoted to the 4th line for a handful of games and just moved back up to the 3rd last night.  Stepan has the playmaking potential to be a very good fit with Gaborik and he has shown flashes with Frolov of creating chances that Frolov just cannot buy a finish right now.  I have no problem if this is the move at least initially upon Gaborik’s return.  To me the next month for Stepan is a second training camp where he needs to make the club all over again because right now it appears one move being set up is when Drury and Prospal return Stepan goes to Hartford unless he picks it up big in the interim.
For me the vote would go to Boyle in the middle and I don’t really care if it is Frolov or Avery on the wing, though a Frolov-Boyle-Gaborik connection could be very interesting as you have a combination of skill sets and have not sacrificed toughness or protection for the leader.  If you went with that combination I would then follow with Avery-Stepan-Prust as it is similar to what Stepan had early in the year with Avery and Fedotenko other than Prust brings more consistent energy to the game.  And the final line would be Boogaard-Christensen-Fedotenko as right now neither Christensen or Fedotenko are doing anything worthy of being in the lineup, so let them move down or even sit until they earn their time back.  My expectation is that in a rigged vote you will see the Anisimov and Boyle lines remain intact while Gaborik plays with Frolov and probably Stepan due to the doghouse issue for Christensen, but campaign hard and don’t forget, Vote Boyle.  
Let Me Know In the Comments Who Gets Your Vote