The New York Rangers are lucky enough to have not needed to make many line changes throughout the first 21 games of the season. There have been a few minor swaps here and there, but the overall roster has looked the same for the majority of the year. This is a solid indication that things have been going pretty well in New York.
One of the few major changes in the lineup, and perhaps the biggest, was the switch between Blake Wheeler and Kaapo Kakko. The former second-overall pick began the year as the first-line right winger, but he was swiftly swapped for Wheeler, who was playing down on the third line. There were initial signs of improvement from both players following the change, but it’s clear that putting Wheeler in the top six is not a long-term solution for the first line.
Wheeler has improved since joining the first line, but not by much
It took Wheeler 11 games to record his first point as a Ranger. Since then, he’s scored five more for a total of six points on the season. It’s clear that his offensive production has begun to heat up since being moved to the first line, but it’s nowhere near where a player in his position should be. Per EliteProspects, he’s on pace to record a total of just 24 points by the end of the season.
Wheeler also possesses a low 44.85% xGF, the lowest of any member of the Rangers to have appeared in the top six this season. His expected goals percentage being that low is a strong indication that he may not be a good fit to play alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider long-term.
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The Rangers losing Kakko to injury has not helped the RW situation
The right wing seems to be the only position on the roster in which the Rangers lack elite skill down the lineup. Had it been more apparent earlier on that Wheeler may not be suitable to play on the first line, the switch between him and Kakko could have easily been undone. But with Kakko now being out long-term with a lower-body injury, there aren’t many options left for the Rangers to consider.
A trade may need to be in order for the Rangers to acquire more depth at the right wing position. Alexis Lafreniere has been the most talented by far this season, but it’s impossible to move him up to the first line without destroying the elite chemistry and offensive production generated by the second line. If the Rangers want to feel safe with a solid first-line right winger, they will have to look elsewhere across the league for their solution.