Buchnevich returns to MSG as Blues visit tonight, Lafreniere improvement, Kakko injury update, Panarin concerns, the Fast Effect, what Drury must address

In a few hours, the Rangers will play host to the Blues at MSG. The game can be seen on TNT at 7:30 PM. That means face-off probably won’t be until 7:40 or so. Another reason to not be crazy about national broadcasts. They delay the second game of the doubleheader even more.

For the Rangers, they will look to snap a two-game losing streak. Following a lost weekend where they went over five periods without a goal until Alexis Lafreniere ended that drought, they’ll need a better start tonight. They don’t want to lose a third straight with the calendar now March.

If they plan to win, it’s advisable for them to score early against the Blues. Whether it’s Jordan Binnington or Ville Husso, the objective is the same. St. Louis is a good team with plenty of talent.

A key part of that nucleus is Pavel Buchnevich. After being dealt last summer for Sammy Blais (out for season) and a second round pick, the 26-year old right wing has delivered for his new team. After signing for four years at an average cap hit of $5.8 million with a moderated no-trade clause, Buchnevich is having a career year.

Coming off his best output of 48 points in 54 games last season with the Blueshirts, Captain Happy enters tonight’s game with 19 goals and 27 assists for 46 points in 46 contests. For the first time in his six-year NHL career, he’s a point-per-game player.

Part of his improvement is due to former coach David Quinn. While he wasn’t too popular here, credit Quinn for making Buchnevich a more responsible player. By having him kill penalties in ’21, it turned him into a more complete player. He led the Blueshirts with three shorthanded goals last year. He matured and showed more of his quirky personality.

When Team President and GM Chris Drury made it apparent that Buchnevich was probably a goner due to his off-season plan, you felt bad. It was nice to see Buchnevich evolve into a more consistent player. He was one of our own. A homegrown talent they took in the third round at number 75 in the 2013 NHL Draft.

While at times his inconsistency drove fans nuts, it was all part of the process in development. Sometimes, expectations become unrealistic for a young player. By the end of his fifth and final season as a Blueshirt, he finally was ready for the next chapter in his career.

Unfortunately, that meant a scenery change due to Drury foreseeing cap issues. His foresight proved correct when he extended both Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox. Combined with the wise additions of Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves to address the lack of grit on the roster, the Rangers are a better team this season. Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices to improve.

For most of ’21-22, there have been complaints about how much they miss Buchnevich. There’s no doubt his production can’t be replaced. However, Rangers brass knew that going in. With Lafreniere now in Buchnevich’s old spot on the top line with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, he’s starting to show flashes of what made him the top pick in 2020.

It isn’t easy for a 20-year old left wing to make the transition to the right side. It’s coming. Lafreniere enters the match with two goals and a helper over the last three games. Even when he doesn’t hit the score sheet, you see the growth and maturity of a player who’s improved defensively under Gerard Gallant. The skating and forechecking are also better. He’s making more plays with the puck. His comfort level is a key to the Rangers’ season.

The Rangers were also hoping Kaapo Kakko could help fill the void left by Buchnevich. However, he struggled with consistency. Prior to an injury which now seems pretty clear to his wrist (seen with a cast on at Sunday’s game), Kakko had five goals and nine assists in 37 games. He’d gone a dozen games without a goal prior to the club revealing that he’d be out with an injury for a while. For whatever reason, they kept it top secret as if Kakko was in witness protection.

If it has to do with the wrist, that would help explain why Kakko rarely shot the puck. He never had more than two shots over his last 10 games totaling just 11. His improved skating and overall game didn’t suffer. He’s a plus-seven with 12 takeaways in Year Three. The question is how much longer will he be out? If he’s in a cast, that could mean we don’t see him until after the March 21 trade deadline.

It’ll be interesting to see what Drury decides between now and that key date. With the current roster clearly lacking scoring depth, they need to upgrade. You can’t have Dryden Hunt playing on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Both of who have been disappointing. A combined 25 goals through this point of the schedule isn’t enough production from two of the top four scoring forwards.

They need to acquire a scoring right wing that can produce on the second line. That would relieve some of the pressure. Panarin hasn’t looked like himself lately. Is it partially due to the conflict back home between Russia and Ukraine? It has to be on his mind.

It isn’t easy for Russian players to play right now. There’s plenty of opposition to Russia due to that disgusting tyrant Putin. Alexander Ovechkin has been publicly harassed by reporters for his past support of Putin. He has a family back home. This is a very complicated situation.

We know Panarin has family in Russia too. He already experienced a very uncomfortable situation last year due to nonsensical accusations former KHL coach Andrei Nazarov spewed. Since he took time off for personal reasons, it’s my opinion that he hasn’t been the same player. The Tom Wilson incident didn’t help matters. At least he feels protected now thanks to Reaves.

The Rangers pay Panarin a lot of money to be their top scoring forward. While the production of 56 points (14-42-56) in 48 games is still respectable, there have been too many games where he isn’t as noticeable. Panarin has a good shot. In Year One on Broadway, he was brilliant scoring 32 goals with 63 assists for a great total of 95 points over 69 games. That was MVP caliber stuff from the Bread Man.

If you look at what he’s done since, there’s been a drop-off in the goal department. Not so much last year. He still got 17 in 42 games. But the 14 he has in 48 show a trend. His shooting percentage is still a solid 11.6 percent. However, he’s 14.3 for his career. They’re not going in as much. He blew a great chance off a Strome feed in a recent loss. He needs to bury those.

Maybe not having Jesper Fast hurt more than previously thought. The gritty Fast did a lot of grunt work by digging out pucks and winning battles to free up time and space for Panarin. His hustle also benefited Strome. They were a great scoring line.

But Fast left following the August 2020 debacle for Carolina ironically. The same opponent that humiliated the Rangers in three games. Brady Skjei’s big hit early in that preliminary series knocked out Fast. Who knew he’d sign there? He’s doing the same stuff there. Quickie has 11 goals and 21 points with a plus-14 rating for the first place Hurricanes.

In case you’re wondering, Fast had simular production in ’19-20. He had 12 goals and 29 points with a plus-16 rating while mostly playing with Panarin and Strome. Almost all of it at even strength. An area he continues to excel at.

Colin Blackwell was a solid pseudo replacement last year. He had chemistry with Panarin and Strome. It was due to a similar work ethic. Blackwell was good in the corners and went to the net for goals. Maybe they overlooked what he brought. But they didn’t protect him. He hasn’t come close to matching what he did last year with Seattle. It makes you wonder.

If the second line hasn’t been as effective at five-on-five, what about the bottom two lines? Gallant prefers gritty checking types like Greg McKegg and Hunt over more skilled players like Filip Chytil. Following two healthy scratches, Chytil will be back in the lineup.

A disappointing player with only five goals and seven assists in 41 games, the 22-year old has to be better. Injuries aside, Gallant wants Chytil to pattern his game after the well rounded Zibanejad. Will it happen? I still think he’s better suited for the right wing than center. They tried him there with Panarin and Strome. He had some success. At this point, it looks like he’s being showcased. I don’t expect him to remain a Ranger past March 21.

If Chytil is in, who’s out? Morgan Barron, who hardly played enough in the losses to Pittsburgh and Vancouver? If he is, that means McKegg is still in. While I respect his honest game, you can’t have him in your lineup. Not when most of the secondary players are hardly scoring. Kevin Rooney has gone almost three months without a goal. Hunt as well. When Reaves is your most noticeable forward aside from the versatile Goodrow, that’s not a good sign.

But this is what it is for now. They have 19 days to decide what to do. The upcoming games will help Drury determine who he should covet. I’d imagine Vitali Kravtsov is available. As long as they don’t trade Braden Schneider or Brennan Othmann, we’re good. I would prefer to keep Zac Jones, who was optioned back to Hartford. Jonny Brodzinski was recalled. He recently signed a two-year extension. He’s been a good player for Hartford. Well deserved.

With Jones sent down, that means Patrik Nemeth is ready to return. Congrats to him and his wife on the birth of their newborn baby! Hopefully, he can play like he did in his last game with Schneider.

As for Buchnevich’s return, I’m sure they’ll do a video montage during the first stoppage to acknowledge him. He’ll receive a nice ovation from fans. I am not crying over his success. I’m happy for him.

For those experts who can’t seen to understand why he was traded, do you dislike where the Rangers are in the standings? Does anyone believe Kreider would have had a career high in goals (34) and be leading the league with 17 power play goals? They go hand in hand. It’s worked out well for both players.

Don’t forget some of the talented Blues Buchnevich gets to work with. That’ll be on display tonight. If he gets a goal, the cheers will go to boos quickly.

Happy Birthday 🎂 🥳 🎉 to Henrik Lundqvist!!!!! He blows out the candles on number 40. It’s hard to believe. I remember following him when he plays for Frolunda in Sweden. I was excited about a seventh round pick. Who knew. Hope it’s a wonderful day for the King 🤴.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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