Hockey is back after a long time off. For the Rangers, they’re finally back at it tonight with the Flyers in town. When we last left off, they were winners of three in a row to enter the bye week and All-Star break feeling better about themselves.
The reemergence of Mats Zuccarello provided a spark on the top line with Mika Zibanejad playing his best hockey. Unfortunately, a left foot infection will prevent Zuccarello from going later tonight. They’ll still have leading scorer Zibanejad and top finisher Chris Kreider intact.
It won’t be Pavel Buchnevich, who replaces Zuccarello. Instead, the enigmatic 23-year old forward will not play. Coach David Quinn has decided to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. That includes Neal Pionk, who makes his return after a week off to recover from a lower body injury that apparently had hindered his play. During today’s interview following the morning skate, Quinn discussed his decision to play Brendan Smith as the seventh defenseman while healthy scratching Buchnevich.
When pressed as to why Buchnevich isn’t playing, Quinn didn’t pull any punches. He said, “He has to play better.” Interesting stuff considering where the third-year right wing finds himself. Prior to the break, he was on the fourth line with either Boo Nieves or Brett Howden with Cody McLeod. I didn’t view it as a punishment. But rather the first-year coach trying to change Buchnevich into a more effective player at five-on-five. His Corsica rating has suffered. At last check, it was 43.9. To be fair, he’s started 51.5 percent in the defensive zone. A role reversal. Under Alain Vigneault, he got over 57 percent of his starts in the offensive zone last year. Interestingly, he still finished under 50 CF.
The issue for Buchnevich is consistency. He doesn’t always bring it every shift. A talented player who achieved career highs last season across the board in games played (74), goals (14), assists (29), points (43), even strength goals (9), power play points (5-12-17) and shots (136), this was supposed to be the breakout year for him.
However, it’s been anything but. In 32 games, he has nine goals and six assists for 15 points. His best stretch came in early November when he posted two goals and two assists before suffering a broken thumb that sidelined him over a month. When he first returned in mid-December, he had a goal and assist in his first two games back for a season best five-game point streak. In fact, eight of his 15 points came within an eight-game stretch between Oct. 25 thru Dec. 16.
Since then, points have been hard to come by. Despite not being productive, Quinn was still giving Buchnevich the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t until the last batch of games before the break that he was demoted to the fourth line. He still was rewarded with power play time in a easy home win over Carolina on Jan. 15. He posted two power play goals to erase a six-game drought.
Part of the problem is he doesn’t shoot the puck enough. He’s totaled 39 shots in 32 games. Buchnevich is a very effective player on the man-advantage. Four of his nine goals have come on it. If you count a goal with Henrik Lundqvist pulled in the season opener against Nashville, five of the nine have come a man up. It’s being able to harness it at even strength that has been mystifying. Along with a unwillingness to take the body conistently, you have a underachieving player who should be doing better.
Critics of Quinn like to turn that around by claiming that Buchnevich should be handed a spot on the top line with Zibanejad and Kreider. The KZB line had some success last year under Vigneault, who they hated. However, they weren’t very productive at even strength despite good Corsica numbers. When Jesper Fast replaced Buchnevich on the line, they actually were more successful at five-on-five. Fast is a more consistent player with a better defensive acumen and stronger work ethic. Those are factors.
Buchnevich isn’t a small guy either. Listed at 6-3, 196 pounds, he’s fully capable of playing a grittier style. Something he did with success following some criticism from Quinn. He wants a more active Buchnevich, who will use his shot more and get to the inside for rebounds. Most of all, finish checks. I don’t know if he’ll ever be that type of player. He’s more about flash and dash due to his skating and European influence.
Before the season, I projected him for between 20-25 goals and 55-60 points. I felt based on his playmaking ability, he could top 30 assists in a top six role. I also believed he could get at least 20 goals with half coming on the power play. I was far from alone in this thinking. Under the demanding Quinn, it hasn’t translated. The difference between him and Vigneault is he gives clear explanations for his lineup decisions.
Buchnevich is far from alone in being a part of the Quinn Bin. He’s made examples of plenty of players including veteran Kevin Shattenkirk and Vladislav Namestnikov. Tony DeAngelo has responded well to all the games he’s missed by forming a good pair with veteran leader Marc Staal. Namestnikov might not have the skill of Buchnevich, but he’s worked hard to carve a niche under Quinn, even earning penalty killing time. He also plays with edge by taking the body. Something Quinn emphasizes. Even favorite Jimmy Vesey was made an example of due to his play levelling off. The difference is he has 11 goals and 13 assists in a defined third line role. He also receives power play and penalty kill time.
I’ve said that Buchnevich will decide his future over the next three weeks. If his play improves when he probably returns on Thursday in New Jersey for astonishingly the first rivalry game against the Devils, he can avoid getting traded at the Feb. 25 deadline. If he continues to be unsteady, he’ll pack his bags and be gone. A scenario nobody could’ve foreseen.
As far as the lineup, Namestnikov will move up to play with Zibanejad and Kreider. The cohesive line of Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome and Fast remains together. Kevin Hayes is finally ready to go. He’ll play with Vesey and Brett Howden, who hopefully will be rejuvenated following the off time. Nieves and Cody McLeod are the 10th and 11th forwards. I’m sure Nieves will be worked in regularly due to how well he’s played. McLeod stays in just in case the Flyers pull any shenanigans.
Alexandar Georgiev makes the start. Quinn wanted to give All-Star Henrik Lundqvist the night off. He earned it with his performance in the breakaway challenge and by allowing nothing in the first period of the final to help the Metro defeat the Central to win the tournament.
As far as going with seven D, eh. I’m not a fan. It seems more like a showcase than anything.