Buchnevich benching is not a big deal


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Pavel Buchnevich will be a healthy scratch tonight in Brooklyn. Matt Puempel will replace him. Ranger fans have overreacted to the benching. AP Photo via Getty Images 

With a big rivalry game on the horizon tonight in Brooklyn, some Rangers pundits aren’t happy that rookie Pavel Buchnevich will be a healthy scratch against the Islanders. The gifted 21-year old Russian is in a slump. ¬†He has just one point over the last 10 games.

When it comes to first-year players, most hit peaks and valleys. Even Toronto’s Auston Matthews went through a rough stretch following his hot start. Eventually, the 2016 number one overall pick got out of it. He leads all rookies in goals with 27. But trails teammate Mitch Marner in points (48) and 2016 second overall pick Patrik Laine (47). A fascinating Calder race that also involves Zach Werenski and Matt Murray.

For Buchnevich, the former 2013 Rangers’ third round selection (75th overall) has only played 24 games due to missing significant time with back spasms. Prior to his recent slump in which he’s gone from a top nine role to the fourth line, he was a point-per-game player. There’s no denying his talent. What it comes down to is the team he plays for.

Unlike the Leafs, the Rangers are much deeper. They aren’t as reliant on rookies. A good mix of vets and a young core that features Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner makes it hard for first-year players to get consistent playing time.

Jimmy Vesey is a couple of years older than Buchnevich. Following a good start, he hit a rookie wall in December. Eleven of his 13 goals came earlier in the season. At one point, the former Hobey Baker winner found himself in a decreased role on the fourth line. The 23-year old was unable to get going. When Buchnevich returned last month, coach Alain Vigneault reunited him with Zibanejad and Nash. Initially, he picked up where he left off continuing to produce.

Eventually, he cooled off. That opened the door for Vesey. Finally picking up his game, Vigneault shifted him up to the top line with Stepan and Nash while sliding down dynamic duo Kreider and Zuccarello with Zibanejad. Combined with Hayes’ big return that’s resulted in the continued strong play of a cohesive third line with Miller and Grabner, that left Buchnevich out of the top nine. He has played in a reduced role on the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast.

To Vigneault’s credit, he was still giving Buchnevich power play time. So, the versatile Russian who can both pass and finish wasn’t penalized. However, he’s had a downturn. So, he won’t play at Barclays Center. Instead, ex-Senators first round pick Matt Puempel gets the call after sitting out the previous six. He’s had some success scoring six times in 18 contests since the Rangers claimed him. The biggest highlight coming at Arizona when he recorded his first career hat trick on New Year’s Eve.

There’s nothing wrong with the move. Puempel isn’t exactly a veteran. He’s also a young player still in the learning stages. He brings speed and a shot first mentality. So, there is little issue with him getting back in the lineup for Buchnevich.

Besides, sometimes letting a young player watch a game from above can help them. It really isn’t the big deal it’s being made out to be. What we are talking about is Buchnevich, who’s been cold. Vesey has regained his spot scoring the game-winner in a one-goal win at Columbus. A game where Vigneault moved him up replacing Buchnevich, who he feels can be better.

To the critics who want to point to the coach’s loyalty to veteran defensemen Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, he’s managed them better. Particularly Girardi, who isn’t getting as many minutes these days. Neither is Klein, whose play has finally picked up. The notion that Adam Clendening should play over either is foolish. Clendening is a decent extra D with good possession skills. He’s shaky defensively. So, it’s not an upgrade.

Simply put, you can’t compare how the coach handles forwards to defense. It’s entirely two different things. I’ve also heard the argument how Vigneault never scratched Vesey. Part of the reason was the roster wasn’t entirely healthy. But Nash and Hayes returned. They’re now full strength. Had they been prior, I’d imagine Vesey would’ve sat out a game.

One thing about Vigneault, he’s consistent when it comes to handling young players. He hasn’t been afraid to bench Miller or Kreider when they commit mistakes. Both have been two of the club’s best players. They each responded well. At one critical point, Miller found himself on the fourth line. Since, he’s been the team’s most consistent performer leading them in scoring with 46 points.

As much as I have criticized the coach in the past for player usage and other situations, he’s done a good job. He has the team playing well. They enter play winners of six straight trailing Columbus and Pittsburgh by two points for second in the Metropolitan Division. With 26 games left including a busy 11 games in 19 day stretch, the Rangers have 75 points and 35 ROW. They’re comfortably in the first wildcard 12 points up on second wildcard Toronto and 14 points clear of Philadelphia.

Even with their improved play, the Islanders still sit on the outside of the playoffs with 60 points. They trail the Maple Leafs by three for the final spot. A 7-1 blowout loss at Toronto cost them a chance to move into eighth. They’ll have a chance to redeem themselves in downtown Brooklyn against their favorite nemesis.

The third match-up of four between the classic New York rivals should be interesting. Especially with Jason Chimera commenting on how much he hates the Rangers. That should add some juice to the rivalry.

As for Buchnevich, relax. It’s one game. He’ll be back. If Puempel plays well, maybe he stays in. But you know Vigneault wants to get Buchnevich back in and see how he responds. He has the brighter future.

That’s our perspective. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the game.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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