GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Like a recurrent autumn ghost, the question of depth at center has haunted the Rangers recently. But it may not be as scary this time around. There's some legit competition in the middle that will play out when preseason games begin next week.
Consider: Brad Richards and Brian Boyle helped solidify the pivot for several years, but were gone after the 2013-14 season. Last season, Martin St. Louis, a career winger, had to step when Derek Stepan missed the first 12 games with a broken leg. A healthier Stepan, a career year from Derick Brassard, the emergence of rookie Kevin Hayes -- who could switch to the wing -- and the reliable Dom Moore helped carry the Blueshirts through the season.
Stepan and Brassard, each signed long-term, are unquestionably the top two centers coming into camp, but after that, the lines are to be determined. Hayes, free-agent Jarret Stoll and rookie Oscar Lindberg, 23, are the candidates at the dots, although any of them, as well as Moore, could be used as a winger. It appears former center J.T. Miller will remain on the flank.
Perhaps the most intriguing is Stoll, 33, who was signed to a one-year, $800,000 contract after playing seven years in Los Angeles and winning two Stanley Cups. Stoll, who had just 17 points in 73 games, also brings some baggage to New York. He was arrested and charged with felony possession of cocaine and MDMA (Ecstasy) during a hotel pool party in Las Vegas in April. Stoll pleaded to two misdemeanors -- trespassing and breach of peace -- and completed a sentence of community service before the Rangers acquired him Aug. 10.
"That's not who I am," Stoll declared when he signed, and after Tuesday's scrimmage, said his legal issues did not affect his training, which began soon after the Kings' season ended without making the playoffs. "We had played three, maybe four long seasons," Stoll said. "To get a full offseason training . . . is definitely a positive. You hope to play over 100 games," he said and called a fresh start "exciting anywhere, it's energizing."
Stoll, a righty who won 51 percent of his faceoffs last season (55 percent in his career) and kills penalties, said that coach Alain Vigneault has no hard-and-fast plan for him. "Coach was talking to a bunch of us, [said] 'kind of let it play out,' " Stoll said. "A lot of guys can play a lot of different roles and a lot of different positions."
His challenge, Stoll said, is "to have some good preseason games, find some chemistry with certain guys and see what the coaching staff wants to do. I'd play whatever, but penalty-killing, power play, taking big faceoffs, that's my game. You play your game. They brought me here for a reason. They feel they need that."