Part 13 of a series analyzing the New York Rangers.
Maybe Greg McKegg had no business being elevated into Kaapo Kakko’s spot on the wing for those shifts in the third period at Calgary on Jan. 2 in the sequence of events that drew Larry David’s ire on Michael Kay’s fine radio show.
But the fact is — and you had to know this was coming — the 27-year-old Rangers forward did a pretty, pretty, pretty good job in his standard role as coach David Quinn’s fourth-line center.
The problem is that for Quinn’s two years behind the Rangers bench, the role of the fourth-line center has been as narrow as the role of the fourth line, which has been used for the most part as a repository for tough guys and mismatched forwards, but rarely as a defined unit.
Oh, for the days of the HMO Line, the combination of Ryan Hollweg, Dominic Moore and Jed Ortmeyer that played such a significant role in the 2005-06 club’s chemistry and unexpected climb to a playoff spot after a seven-year drought. That was the season in which Jaromir Jagr made a point of praising “the best fourth line in the league” after nearly every game.
Or for the days of 2013-14, when Moore — back for his second tour in the Blueshirt — primarily centered Brian Boyle on the left and either Derek Dorsett or Dan Carcillo on the right, the group constituting a perfect blend of disturbance and ability that proved an important factor in the club’s march to the Stanley Cup final.
But in 2005-06, you had a coach, in Tom Renney, who was committed to going with four lines. So was Alain Vigneault in 2013-14, though his enthusiasm for being a four-line coach waxed and waned.
Do you remember who was part of the fourth line down the 2014-15 stretch and in the ensuing playoffs? If you called out the name, “James Sheppard” without consulting your go-to hockey website, well, you are a better man (or woman, uh, you know what I mean) than I.
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The fourth line in the 2017 playoffs was decent, with Oscar Lindberg working well in the middle, generally with a conglomeration of Tanner Glass, Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast on the flanks. It became much more than decent when, in the playoffs, J.T. Miller found his way onto the unit with Glass and Lindberg (who was lost to Vegas in the expansion draft) in the series against Ottawa, but, uh, duh.
Almost without fail you could predict when Vigneault would bounce Miller to the fourth line. There’d be a game pockmarked by wild decision-making in the defensive zone, maybe a blunder or three, and you’d walk into the rink for the next morning skate or practice and, yup, there was the grease board with J.T. down in the lineup.
Those were the days.
Quinn has insisted that he views himself as a four-line coach, but not through two seasons in New York. Part of that surely is personnel-driven. But Quinn loves to ride his top-of-the-line talent, and until the last month or so of this season, he apparently felt it was necessary to have a pseudo-enforcer in the lineup. Hence, Cody McLeod in 2018-19 and, until his season ended in early February with surgery on his bilateral core muscle, Micheal Haley this year.
So, really, the fourth line that most often included Brendan Smith, needed on the penalty kill at his usual defense spot, kind of got leftover minutes and produced little in terms of offense or change of momentum.
McKegg, though, did his part as an energetic, effective forechecker with speed who had an offensive trick or two. Though Quinn occasionally used him as a third-line wing (Calgary!), McKegg got 38 games in the middle of the fourth line that finally gained some definition over the final month of play when No. 14 skated between a demoted Brendan Lemieux and either Brett Howden or Julien Gauthier.
See, right there, the reference to Lemieux’s demotion that makes the term “fourth line” a pejorative one. But Quinn seemed to have more use for the unit with Lemieux on it, and then, even more so when 2016 first-rounder Gauthier (21st overall) joined the club in a mid-February trade with the Hurricanes in which Joey Keane went the other way.
The line was disruptive and hard on the puck in its six games intact, getting about eight minutes a night at five-on-five. It was worthy of trust and it provided the Rangers with an added dimension.
Moore is the gold standard for Rangers fourth-line centers, with Brian Boyle playing the wing and up in the lineup more than you probably remember. The short-lived combination of Sean Avery on the left with Boyle in the middle and Brandon Prust on the right would be remembered as perhaps the best of the crop, except that it was the second line in the 2011 playoffs against Washington.
Lemieux will be battling for top-nine minutes and Gauthier likely will get an opportunity to show off his offensive talent. But if the Rangers are serious, they could sure use a defined fourth line. They could do much worse than re-upping McKegg to center it.
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