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Tyler Motte adding key element to Rangers 4th line: ‘He’s been one of their best forwards’

Not many people know about Tyler Motte. When he scored his first goal as a Ranger, a backhand flip into an empty net to seal Game 3 of the team’s second-round series against the Hurricanes, it was a reminder that the 27-year-old who plays bigger than his generously listed 5-foot-10 frame has quietly slipped into a very important role for the Rangers in this postseason, even as he doesn’t get the big minutes or big moments.

Motte is hardly a big scorer either, with 35 career regular-season goals in 269 games. But since his return from injury in Game 6 of the first round against the Penguins, he’s provided plenty of juice in his limited role — so much so that (small sample size alert) he leads the Rangers in expected-goals percentage in the postseason at 57.82 percent. His presence allows Gerard Gallant to use his fourth line deeper into games, or at least parts of it when he can send Motte, Kevin Rooney and another forward besides Ryan Reaves over the boards to preserve a lead.

Motte’s presence has also allowed Gallant to avoid using his top-six forwards so heavily on the penalty kill. In the five games since Motte came back from an upper-body injury, the PK rotation has been Andrew Copp, Motte, Rooney and Mika Zibanejad, with an occasional shift for Chris Kreider and even fewer shifts for Ryan Strome.

“He takes a little bit of heat off those top guys,” Gallant said. “(Motte) does a lot of different things for us. Like (Goodrow). They’re the same type of player.”

Motte has been doing that for a few years now. He was a Michigan kid who made it to the U.S. National Team Development Program program in Ann Arbor, a year behind current teammates Copp, Jacob Trouba and Frank Vatrano. “He was always the same kind of player,” said Andy Copp, Andrew’s father, who scouted Motte for the U.S. program. “Maybe considered a little undersized, but one of the hardest workers around. And he has a lot of skill.”

He followed Copp and Trouba to the University of Michigan after being selected 121st overall by Chicago in the 2013 draft. Motte had 32 goals his junior year playing alongside Kyle Connor and J.T. Compher, then he bounced between the Hawks and the AHL before going to Columbus along with Artemi Panarin, then to Vancouver at the 2017-18 trade deadline for Thomas Vanek.

Motte found his niche in Vancouver under Travis Green. He never scored more than nine goals in any of his four seasons there, but he showed himself to be a playoff performer with four goals in the Canucks’ improbable run to the Western Conference semifinal in the 2020 Edmonton bubble, including this one:

This season is the final one of a two-year deal worth $1.225 million per. Motte was reportedly seeking an extension with the Canucks in the $2 million range, but the front-office upheaval seemed to set him on a course to be moved at the deadline. The Rangers didn’t seem like a prime destination, given their need for help further up the forward depth chart, but Chris Drury sent a fourth-round pick to the Canucks on deadline day two months ago and added Motte to the stable of acquisitions.

ESPN’s Sean McDonough relayed a conversation he had with Drury prior to Game 1 against Carolina on the air Wednesday, saying: “(Drury) said he had no idea how good Motte was. ‘Our scouts kept saying Motte, Motte, Motte, we need to get Motte.’ And Chris is really glad they did.”

Motte’s return after missing a month following a hit from Pittsburgh’s Anthony Angello was huge also because Goodrow, the player Gallant compared him to, had been out since Game 1 with what’s believed to be a broken foot. A league source said this week that Goodrow “could be getting close” to a return, possibly by the end of this series, though he hasn’t practiced with his teammates since the injury.

That would give Gallant a real decision to make. Reaves has had a decent run on the fourth line so far in the postseason, not chasing hits or extracurricular activity as of now — though he did say on Monday that there might be some elevated nastiness to come in Game 4 after Max Domi’s game-ending cross-check on Ryan Lindgren Sunday. Reaves doesn’t even lead the Rangers in hits this postseason; his 28 are tied for third, behind Trouba and Kreider.

Motte has done what he did in Vancouver: elevate the play of his linemates. Rooney and Reaves struggled to find much consistency before Motte returned; in the five games that line has been together, the shot share numbers are mediocre but the trio has generated some scoring chances, almost exclusively through Motte’s speed and ability to take pucks off Hurricanes players.

“He’s fast, plays with an edge, holds the puck well, carries it in,” Reaves said. “Things we need on our line.”

Motte is helping big-time now. The question follows then: Can he be a part of what’s to come with the Rangers? They already have Goodrow. Copp might be a player Drury decides to try to re-sign. That gives them two versatile forwards to move around the middle of the lineup. Do they need another? Can they afford another with a salary-cap crunch looming?

There’s no answer to those questions yet. There is an answer to this one: Who is Tyler Motte?

“Hard-working little guy,” said an NHL scout who’s seen all the Rangers playoff games so far. “And he’s been one of their best forwards.”

(Photo: Jared Silber / NHLI via Getty Images)

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