With no firm timetable on Chris Kreider’s return, the Rangers know there isn’t much time to figure out how best to replace him at left wing on Mika Zibanejad’s line.
“It’s not about giving [anyone] looks,” David Quinn said after practice Monday in Tarrytown. “It’s about who’s gonna allow that line to have success.”
Phil Di Giuseppe is getting the first crack on the unit, with Pavel Buchnevich on Zibanejad’s opposite flank. Quinn said he’ll remain there to start Tuesday’s home game against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
The 26-year-old Di Giuseppe played three seasons at the University of Michigan before signing with Carolina in 2014. He appeared in 147 games for the Hurricanes over four seasons and three games for Nashville in 2018-19 before signing with the Rangers as a free agent last summer. He totaled 14 goals and 26 points this season for AHL Hartford, but he’s scored just once in 15 games with the Blueshirts.
“I love his pace. He plays a lot like [Jesper] Fast. He’s got that hardworking mentality. He gets to the net. He plays at a pace and he can create room for Buchy and Mika,” Quinn said. “We’ll start it that way [Tuesday] and see how it goes.
“Obviously, with Kreids out, you’re kind of a little bit in a feeling-out process of who might grab that opportunity. I talked with Mika and Buchy and our staff, and we agree this is what we’re gonna do right now.”
Kreider suffered a fractured foot while blocking a shot during Friday’s loss in Philadelphia, a few days after he’d signed a seven-year contract extension worth $45 million. The Rangers haven’t revealed a projected time frame, but Quinn said Monday that the winger is not expected to require surgery.
“He thinks he’s gonna come back next week, so we’ll see,” Quinn joked. “He’s in a boot. How quickly he heals is going to [determine] when he comes back.”
Di Giuseppe skated in Kreider’s place alongside Zibanejad and Buchnevich for much of Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Flyers, logging an even rating over 13:44 of ice time. His linemates accounted for all three Rangers goals.
“Any time you have a chance to play with them, you just gotta bring your best and hope you can help them out and make their job a little easier,” Di Giuseppe said. “I know what I bring to the team, just trying to work hard every shift and take it shift by shift and be heavy on the forecheck and move my legs and be responsible in the D-zone. Just stick to the same kind of script.”
Zibanejad was named the NHL’s Second Star of the Month for February, behind Edmonton winger Leon Draisaitl. The center tied for first in the league with 11 goals for the month and ranked second in points (20), notching at least one point in 12 of the Rangers’ 15 games (11-4-0).
Zibanejad then opened March with two goals and an assist Sunday against the Flyers, giving him a career-high 32 goals in just 52 appearances to tie Artemi Panarin (32-58-90) for the team lead.
Despite the successive losses, the Rangers (35-26-4) are four points removed from the No. 8 playoff position in the Eastern Conference with 17 games remaining.
“I think we shouldn’t change too much,” Zibanejad said of Kreider’s absence. “Obviously, Kreids is a unique player and there’s not many guys like him in the league. But I think just to keep playing the way we have been, I think system-wise and everything like that, it’s not going to change.
“[Di Giuseppe] skates well. He works. In this situation that we’re in, we need to work. I thought he was good [Sunday]. It’s a little bit different than Kreids, but that’s maybe not the easiest thing to get a full understanding how he likes to play and how we’re going to make it work in a short period of time. I think it will be fine.”