Tom Castro The Hockey Writers
Rangers Helped & Hurt By the NHL Pause
It’s a safe bet that not a single member of the New York Rangers wanted to see the 2019-20 season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A young team on an apparent rise was squarely in the mix for a playoff spot, a largely unexpected turn of events just two years into the organization’s wholesale rebuilding project.
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Yet the NHL appears determined to restart the season, albeit in a radically different form from what existed before “social distancing” became a household term. If, in fact, the league does go with a 24-team playoff tournament (that would include the Rangers), the long layoff is likely to negatively affect the games and situations of some players – while perhaps benefiting some going into the NHL’s new world.
So let’s take a look at which Blueshirts could least afford the extended down time – and which might have gained from the unexpected break.
Hurt by COVID-19 Pause
The prized rookie has predictably suffered through the ups and downs of being a teenager in the NHL this season. The way through that? Reps, reps and more reps. Learning how to manage the grind of an 82-game season, how to prepare, and most importantly, adjusting to the speed and skill of the best hockey league in the world was all being gained by the No. 2 overall pick in the draft during his bumpy rookie campaign. The loss of the 12 remaining regular-season games, which could have served as a confidence springboard into the playoffs and/or next season, represents a blow for Kaapo Kakko’s development.
The Finn’s offensive game was starting to improve leading into the league’s March 12 shutdown, even if the production didn’t show it. Kakko still has a long way to go defensively – and that’s why those 12 games would have served him well. It remains to be seen whether Kakko has regressed upon the restart of play, or if he can pick up his developmental track where it left off.
Speaking of developmental processes, it appeared that Pavel Buchnevich was starting to finally bear fruit following three-plus seasons of starts and stops. The 25-year-old recorded two goals and seven assists during a seven-game point streak leading into the pause, and 21 points in his last 21 games, giving him a career-high total of 46 points on the season.
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The third-round pick in 2013 raised his overall game when linemate Chris Kreider went down with a broken foot shortly before the pause, and Buchnevich’s chemistry with Kreider and Mika Zibanejad on what has often been the Rangers’ best forward unit over the past few seasons also plays to his advantage.
Big and multi-talented with the puck, Buchnevich will try to rediscover the roll he was on before the shutdown. The Russian is also set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this offseason, and padding his point total certainly would have helped him during contract negotiations.
It seems so long ago that No. 10 was dazzling Rangers fans as perhaps the finest free-agent signing in team history … sorry, Blueshirts fans who aren’t coping with all of this well. Artemi Panarin was a very good bet to reach 100 points in his first season on Broadway, yet it appears he’ll have to settle for career highs of 32 goals, 63 assists and 95 points in just 69 games.
Panarin will probably be able to fall out of bed and start piling up points again on the first day play resumes. It’s just a shame that he likely won’t become the seventh Ranger to hit the 100-point mark, which seemed all but assured before the world changed.
The whole league, not just the Rangers, lost out when the pause sprayed cold water on the white-hot Mika Zibanejad. With 11 goals in his last six games – including a five-goal masterpiece in a 6-5 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals on March 7 – and 23 goals and 15 assists over his previous 24 contests, Zibanejad looked unstoppable. Picking up where he left off after so much downtime would be an incredible feat.
Brett Howden had finally put together a sustained string of stronger performances, recording two goals and three assists in his final 12 games. It’s hardly Zibanejad-level production, but it just might have represented a small step forward for the 22-year-old who has yet to show he’s a part of the long-term future on Broadway. He’ll have to start to process of proving that all over again.
Filip Chytil’s encouraging season, in which he used a season-starting demotion to the AHL as fuel to regain his spot with the Rangers, had been going sideways again at the time of the shutdown, the center recording one goal in his last 10 contests and three goals and three assists in 24. Still seen as a key part of the organization’s future, Chytil really could have used those 12 games to try and find a season-closing hot streak.
It’s worth remembering that Chytil is only 19 months older than Kakko. Like his 19-year-old teammate, Chytil needs all the NHL ice he can get.
Helped by COVID-19 Pause
This one’s easy. The euphoria of the trade-deadline day extending of the power forward for seven years quickly gave way to the shock of Kreider suffering a broken ankle against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 28, just four days later. The Rangers, who had won five in a row and 9 of 10 before Kreider was injured, lost to the Flyers and also dropped the next two, going 2-4-1 in total without him.
Kreider should be good to go if and when play resumes, though rust could be a factor.
The rookie phenom had been back on the ice for two games after suffering a fractured rib in a car accident Feb. 23, an incident in which Buchnevich, also in the car, escaped injury. Igor Shesterkin lost his first game back 6-4 to the New Jersey Devils on March 7 before beating the Dallas Stars 4-2 three days later, rediscovering the form that had him looking like Henrik Lundqvist’s clear heir apparent during a career-opening 10-2-0 effort.
Still, the pause gives the 24-year-old time to fully heal and, well, pause to get his bearings after the eventful start to his NHL career.
Arguing that a player with 8 goals, 34 assists and a plus-22 rating is benefiting from the shutdown might seem dubious, but the defenseman has played in all 70 games during his standout rookie season, averaging 19 minutes of ice time and teaming with fellow rookie Ryan Lindgren as the Rangers’ de facto No. 1 pair on the blue line.
Adam Fox wasn’t showing signs of fatigue, with a goal and six assists during a four-game point streak leading into the break, but the time off might result in a physically and mentally refreshed player going into a playoff tournament.
The heart-and-soul forward hasn’t been the same since suffering a fractured hand Dec. 27, managing only five points since, his physical energy game all but nonexistent. The opportunity to get the hand right and recharge mentally should benefit Brendan Lemieux, who provides a crucial jagged edge for the Blueshirts when he’s at his best, and he could be ornery and ready to go if and when the season resumes.
Panarin’s center had hit a rough patch just before the pause, with no goals and one assist in his last seven contests. Ryan Strome may have needed a recharge, and it appears quarantine was agreeing with him, at least early on.
No Way to Know How Rangers Will Handle Restart
Like all NHL teams, the Rangers will face a great unknown in a potential restart. Will some players respond poorly to the time off? All of them? Hardly any? Or will the world’s greatest hockey players simply pick up where they left off two months ago?
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It’s why an unprecedented playoff tournament, which won’t include fans in the stands, could be disorienting for all involved – and perhaps, prove to be enthralling at the same time.
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