Chris Kreider’s injury exposes Rangers’ youth problem

There were, as the saying goes, 45.5 million reasons why the Rangers signed Chris Kreider to a seven-year contract extension hours ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline rather than sending the winger elsewhere as a pending free-agent rental. Just about 45.499 million of the reasons were on display the final two periods in Philadelphia on Friday and all three periods at the Garden against the Flyers on Sunday when Kreider was sidelined with the broken foot he sustained blocking a shot in the first period of the lost weekend’s home-and-home.

For in approaching the deadline, management surveyed the organization and the league and could find no suitable replacements for the power forward. Funny (not haha), but that’s what David Quinn might have said after failing at finding a reasonable facsimile to skate on Mika Zibanejad’s left side until the coach moved Artemi Panarin up to No. 93’s flank for the third period of Sunday’s 5-3 defeat.

A Panarin-Zibanejad combination would form one of the league’s elite power combinations, there is no debate about that with Panarin entering Tuesday’s Garden match against the Blues fourth in the NHL with 90 points (32 goals, 58 assists) and Zibanejad 17th with 65 points (32-33) despite having missed 13 games with a neck issue earlier in the season.

Thing is, the Rangers’ greatest strength this season has been their ability to send Panarin out (with Ryan Strome in the middle) after sending Zibanejad and Kreider out for their turn. The two-pronged attack forced opposition coaches into difficult decisions on matchups with both forward lines and defense pairs. It was a pick-your-poison scenario primary in the Blueshirts’ surge into playoff contention.

So it was if Quinn and his team swallowed a poison pill when Kreider went down for what will likely cost the winger — who had scored 12 goals in 21 games before the injury — the rest of the regular season. This is no excuse for the twin hammerings by the Flyers, the first one by 5-1, just as injuries are never an excuse for not having the organizational depth to overcome them.

The Blue Jackets have been decimated and the Candy Canes are playing without both of their varsity netminders. The Rangers don’t care about that, just as nobody is going to care that the Rangers opened both Sunday and Tuesday with Phil Di Giuseppe on left wing of the first line with Zibanejad and Buchnevich.

(Well, the Di Giuseppe Family undoubtedly cares, but that’s not particularly relevant.)

Di Giuseppe is a 26-year-old, earnest, hard-working grinder who was drafted in the second round, 38th overall, by the ’Canes in 2012. He went from Carolina to Nashville on waivers, then was signed by the Rangers as a free agent last summer and played most of the year with the AHL Wolf Pack before his second recall on Feb. 2. He has 44 points (15-29) in 165 career NHL matches, three points (1-2) in 15 games wearing the Blueshirt, the goal scored Thursday in Montreal.

Putting Di Giuseppe on the first unit is kind of like putting Marcel Hossa or Brad Isbister on the first line with Michael Nylander and Jaromir Jagr, as Tom Renney would do back in the day. It’s a square peg into a round hole. But, other than moving either Brendan Lemieux, who has had a very difficult time of it since returning in mid-January from a broken wrist, or recent acquisition Julien Gauthier up to the top unit from the fourth line, that might be Quinn’s best alternative.

Injuries are not an excuse but they can be a flashlight, illuminating areas of weakness within an organization. Obviously the Blueshirts are lacking up-front. But it is not as if management hasn’t been aware of the deficiency for a fair amount of time.

Indeed, how much different would the picture be if 2017 seventh-overall pick Lias Andersson were ready and/or 2018 ninth-overall pick Vitali Kravtsov were ready and/or 2019 second-overall pick Kaapo Kakko were ready? Actually, if one, two or all three of them had been knocking on the door, management might have sent Kreider through it.

But the three young’uns are not ready. Andersson, who abruptly bolted Hartford in December and was suspended/reinstated weeks later, is playing reasonably well in Sweden for HV71, could be an option come training camp if he is not traded over the summer, but he will not be summoned now. Kravtsov, back with the Wolf Pack after a few weeks in the KHL, is not close. And though Kakko remains with the Rangers, skating a regular shift on the third line, he is not ready for the responsibility that would come with first-line minutes against a more difficult matchup.

There is a lesson here for the Rangers. That is, not to count on 21-and-unders to come to the rescue in a playoff race.

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