Whether Carl Hagelin's three-game suspension for his elbow on Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfreddson is fully warranted is a moot point right now. The fact of the matter is the New York Rangers will be without their rookie winger for three games of their first-round NHL playoffs series that's tied 1-1. It's possible that the series concludes without Hagelin seeing the ice again.
Make no mistake about it, Hagelin's loss is huge. The 23-year-old rookie played 64 games this season after beginning the year in the American Hockey League and immediately was a factor. One of the fastest players in the game -- if not the fastest -- his elite speed alone is something that opponents had to gameplan for. If you don't know where he is on the ice, then you're in trouble because he'll burn you, and he has the offensive ability to make you pay. Hagelin's 38 points (14 of them goals) were good enough for sixth among rookies, with nearly all above him playing in more games.
For John Tortorella, a coach who normally likes to ease youngsters into the lineup before giving them top-line minutes, to recognize Hagelin's ability and eventually slot him on the first line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik says something. These are two top-notch veteran players and sometimes coaches are hesitant to slot younger players with guys like them because of the expectations that come along with the responsibility. Not for Hagelin, though. In fact, the chemistry between Richards and Gaborik for most of this season was non-existent. But the young winger became the glue to that puzzle and really made that line tick -- how about that nine-point first line effort on March 13 against the Carolina Hurricanes?
Even more importantly, though, Hagelin fits into Tortorella's forechecking schemes as one of the best on the team and he's more than adequate defensively. His speed creates turnovers and the pressure he often provides in the opponent's defensive zone leads to more offense.
The Rangers rely so much on their first power-play unit that places Ryan Callahan in Hagelin's spot, so Hagelin has not gotten much time there. He also hasn't been asked to do much on the penalty kill, though Tortorella has hinted that he is ready for it. The fact he's managed 15:02 of ice time is impressive and speaks to the fact that Tortorella has not reeled in his minutes as games move along, showing the coach is comfortable using him in the pressurized situations of the third period (and close games).
Without the winger in the lineup, it would appear that the Rangers have two choices as to how to fill the void. John Scott and his average 6:42 of ice time in 35 games this season is one. He is no more than a fourth-liner/fighter-type who is used in the first period, then is basically stapled to the bench as the game progresses.
The second (and more likely) first choice is to insert heralded rookie Chris Kreider into the lineup. The 20-year-old has spent just over a week away from college hockey, but the Rangers signed him to a three-year contract and pushed him to sign for the postseason for a reason. There couldn't be a more glaring opportunity than now to slot the 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger into the lineup.
Even though Hagelin has played in a grand total of two postseason games, he still has months more experience with Tortorella, NHL game action and life of an NHL player. Kreider has none of that and likely will be thrown into the fire in Game 3 of a postseason series, nonetheless.
For the past year, fans have been stoked about Kreider joining the Rangers and even more so now that he's practiced a handful of times with the team. As much as the inexperience could be worrisome, it's worth noting that Artem Anisimov's second career NHL game came in 2009, Game 7 of the first-round series against the Washington Capitals.
There was no doubt that Kreider would join the lineup sometime this postseason, but nobody wanted it to occur because of a suspension (or injury), especially to a top-liner. They wanted his inclusion to add an offensive boost to the collection they already had. Instead, it looks like he'll have to help fill in as Hagelin, a key piece to New York's success, watches from pressbox for three games.