There is no replacing Chris Kreider.
That’s a reality the Rangers intimately understand in the wake of their power-forward fracturing his left foot while blocking a shot in Friday night’s 5-2 loss at Philadelphia. It is a distinct possibility Kreider could miss the final 18 games of the regular season — with his seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension less than a week old.
The physical gifts and the off-ice leadership Kreider brings cannot be summoned from someone already on the roster, nor called up from AHL Hartford. And, as coach David Quinn jokingly said after the game, “The trade deadline has already passed.”
It passed, and Kreider was extended, partially because there was no return commensurate with his value to the team — now, or in the future. So the Rangers aren’t going to find out how important he is, they already knew.
But unquestionably this has put a damper on the emotional high the team had been riding for the past two months, getting themselves back in the playoff race. Their franchise-best nine-game road winning streak was snapped, and after a much-needed day off Saturday, they have to face Kevin Hayes and the Flyers again Sunday afternoon in the Garden.
“You look at this whole month, we’re playing really good hockey and stepping up,” said Mika Zibanejad, who will likely be the one most affected by losing Kreider on his flank. “We just have to make sure this game doesn’t ruin what we’ve built up this month. It’s one game.
“We’ve been doing a lot of good things for a long period of time, and we just have to make sure this doesn’t ruin that. We move on and aim to get better on Sunday.”
There is no easy solution to who actually steps into Kreider’s place next to Zibanejad. Maybe Quinn slides rookie Kaapo Kakko up there to play with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, or maybe Artemi Panarin goes there and the Blueshirts become extremely top-heavy. For the time being, it seems like Greg McKegg will draw back into the lineup after being a healthy scratch Friday, and his line with Brendan Lemieux and new addition Julien Gauthier was actually pretty effective in the 5-2 win in Montreal on Thursday night.
The Rangers have just two remaining recalls from the Wolf Pack, and they can’t make an emergency recall as long as they have 20 healthy players. So don’t expect No. 9-overall pick Vitali Kravtsov to come riding in on a white horse to save the day. Mind you, the persnickety 20-year-old Russian had five goals in his first 33 AHL games this season, which bridges his two-month sojourn back to Russia. How does that translate to the NHL?
The Rangers already know what they have in the likes of Vinni Lettieri, leading the Wolf Pack with 25 goals and 44 points, along with Steven Fogarty and Tim Gettinger. Veteran Matt Beleskey might be an interesting option, having been in the NHL playoffs five times in his career with the Ducks and Bruins. But if any one of those guys comes up, odds are the role is sheltered minutes on the fourth line.
The Rangers have been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season, but there is one example where they draw some well-deserved confidence that they could weather this storm. Zibanejad missed 13 games due to a neck injury early in the season, and the team won eight of those games.
“We lost Mika for a long stretch of time and we went [8-4-1],” Quinn said. “So we’ve proven we can overcome losing one of our top players, and we’re going to have to do it again.”
The undeniable fact is the Rangers need to respond well to this bit of adversity, or the joy of the past few weeks when the playoffs became a reality will fade quickly and seem like a distant memory swallowed by another season of productive rebuilding.
“I’m not worried how we’re going to handle adversity,” Quinn said. “I already know how we’re going to handle adversity.”
Just like they know there is no replacing Kreider.