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Matthew Golda The Hockey Writers

Published on Friday, October 27, 2017





Nieves Seeks to Seize Center Opportunity

The New York Rangers found a much-needed win on Thursday night. Granted, it was against the Arizona Coyotes, who remain winless on the season, but two points are two points for the struggling Rangers, who still gave away the puck 21 times on the night – far too many. Sloppy play remains the biggest issue facing this club.

Another issue with the Rangers slow start this season has been their lack of center depth. After their Monday night loss to the San Jose Sharks, they sent down Anthony DeAngelo and recalled Boo Nieves in an effort to address that issue.

Nieves impressed in his second career game with the Rangers and first since November of last season. Over the offseason, the Rangers traded away Derek Stepan and caused this problem at the center position. Ironically, with all these questions about a lack of centers, Nieves shined on the night Stepan returned to Madison Square Garden.

Nieves First Game Impressions

Nieves centered a line along with Michael Grabner and Pavel Buchnevich. He tallied three assists on the night as Grabner and Buchnevich each scored twice. Everything went about as well as possible for the 23-year-old center.

A major turning point occurred early in the second period, when Nieves forced a turnover that led to an important Rangers goal. The Coyotes came out in the second period and pressed. They scored to make the game 2-1 and the momentum seemed to be turning against the Rangers. Nieves changed all that by making a great neutral zone play to force a turnover and quickly brought the puck into the offensive zone. There, he used his size to hold off a defender and shoveled a one-handed pass to a wide-open Grabner in front of the net, who deked and scored to make the game 3-1.

This sort of playmaking has been missing from the Rangers this season. They themselves have usually been the culprits of neutral zone turnovers which quickly lead to goals, so it was nice to see the reverse happen for a change. It was also nice to see Nieves utilize his size. He stands at 6’3″, 212 pounds. He’s a big body who possesses good speed. This may only have been one game against a bad team, but the recipe is now there for the Rangers if Nieves can slot into that fourth line and play well consistently.

If there was one area where Nieves struggled, it was in the face-off circle. He only won five of 13 in the circle against the 28th ranked team in face-off winning percentage. That is an area to monitor for Nieves over the next few games.

Fourth Line Fix?

Nieves competed for the fourth line center role during training camp and the preseason, but Filip Chytil ended up winning out. However, Chytil’s time in the NHL did not last long. He played in only two games before being sent down to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League (AHL). The Rangers then signed Adam Cracknell off waivers, only to put him back on waivers to make room for Nieves.

There were even a few games this season where the Rangers dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen and only played with three centers. That is where the Rangers were at in terms of the center position. Which makes Nieves’s performance Thursday night all the more important.

Alain Vigneault likes to roll four lines and play a fast game. Not having a consistent fourth line center meant the Rangers play style suffered for it. With Nieves in the lineup, that speed was evident. His line was fast. But more importantly, they played well in all three zones, which is an area that has plagued every line on the Rangers this season. Again, they gave away the puck 21 times last night, so for as well as the fourth line played, they merely masked the bigger problem.

Boo Nieves (Chris Rutsch/Hartford Wolf Pack)

So, let’s not get ahead of ourselves with Nieves just yet. Last season in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack, Nieves only tallied 18 points in 40 games. That is not a lot of production and brings into question exactly how much he can produce offensively going forward. The tools seem to be there and three assists is a great way to start the season, but I wouldn’t expect a huge offensive output from him. What the Rangers need from him most is the ability to play smart, defensive hockey, so they can utilize four lines and attempt to minimize this sloppy play that remains to hamper their season. We’ll see if consistent fourth line play can quell those troubles.


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