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Rangers’ No. 6 defense spot one of few up for grabs

Fostering lineup competition is a part of every NHL coach’s responsibilities during training camp, but in the modern NHL, legitimate battles for lineup spots are not as common as they once were.

The Rangers are no different, and new head coach Peter Laviolette has had to navigate that just as he has with other teams he’s coached in years past.

There are way more players definitively projected to play with the Rangers this season than there are players duking it out for a job.

“I do think it’s changed a little bit from a mindset, even for me as a coach,” Laviolette said when asked about having so many players who are essentially locked in the lineup. “I was honest with what I said on the first day, I think it gave me an opportunity to work with the guys that are under contract that you think will be part of the New York Rangers group moving forward. And then it gave me a chance to evaluate in the scrimmage and now exhibition games, players that you want to compete and push for a job. There are openings, there are spots and there is opportunity.

“But I think, on all teams probably, that window has closed a little bit. There’s contracts that are in place and that’s not to say that any contract is locked in, there’s always moves you can make.”

Zac Jones is once again contending for the Rangers' sixth defensive spot.
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Peter Laviolette speaking to the media during a press conference when he was introduced as the Rangers new head coach.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

There are only a few openings in the Rangers’ lineup this training camp.

The sixth defenseman role is the recurring vacancy.

Zac Jones and Erik Gustafsson are the leading candidates for the job, and Ben Harpur is also in the mix.

It’s likely Tyler Pitlick will snag one of the final two forward spots on the roster, but Alex Belzile and Riley Nash are also competing for the 12th and 13th forward roles.

“I do think the game’s changed a little bit with regard to that,” he said of lineup competition. “But there’s still some players that have put themselves in a position through their past few years that are going to get an opportunity to show what they can do. You’ll see it in the lineup and exhibition games here every night. We’re hoping they push and they can make noise.”

Mika Zibanejad, who exited Sunday’s intra-team scrimmage with an upper-body injury, returned to the ice Monday in a red non-contact jersey.

“We’ll be 100 percent careful with that,” Laviolette said of getting Zibanejad in a preseason game. “It was good to see him out there today. I think any time a player gets back out on the ice with your group, that’s a good thing. Different color jersey. There won’t be any push or rush to make that happen.”

After sitting out of Sunday’s practice with an upper-body injury, which he may have sustained during the rookie games in Allentown,, Pa., Brennan Othmann was back at practice as a full participant.

The Rangers assigned goaltender Talyn Boyko to AHL Hartford on Monday.

The Rangers will play their first preseason game Tuesday at Madison Square Garden when the Islanders come to town. The non-game group will practice in the morning at MSG Training Center.