With Kevin Hayes’ return aimed for the near future, we’re once again wading into a pool of forward uncertainty. Not over who is going to be playing -- of that, at least, we can assume one of Oscar Lindberg or Brandon Pirri will be sitting — but where those who are playing will slot.
Currently Alain Vigneault has Jimmy Vesey on the second line and Pavel Buchnevich on the fourth. Jesper Fast (who scored the game-winner against Calgary) sits forever in the top-nine for reasons beyond explanation. And I only mention him because it’s his presence on the third line that Vigneault refuses to adjust — which in turn pushes one of Vesey or Buchnevich to the fourth line.
In a column by Larry Brooks, he goes into detail about where he thinks the chips will fall when it comes to Hayes’ return. He also includes this from Vigneault:
“Performance,” Vigneault said when asked for his thought process in determining who joins Stepan and Nash. “In Buffalo, I thought Jimmy played well. On Sunday, after 14 minutes of the second period I’d seen enough and made some changes but then [starting the third] I wanted to show guys confidence and went back to our lines. And they played better.
“But it’s about performance. I think Jimmy lately has been better and that’s why he’s there.”
Performance is, ironically, the same thing that people threw on top of Kevin Hayes when he was relegated to the fourth line last year. People pointed out his lack of goals and assists and didn’t at all seem to realize that playing with Tanner Glass 90% of the time might (just might) impact those numbers.
Granted, this year’s fourth line is far healthier, but Matt Puempel and Lindberg aren’t exactly offensive dynamos who make things happen on every shift. Buchnevich is, quite frankly, wasted there. As is Vesey, to be honest.
See, the point of a line like that, would be to have Fast down there for the Fast-Lindberg defensive connection. Puempel adds the needed amount of offense to keep other team’s on their toes when they’re out against them.
You do that, and suddenly you have a fourth line with speed, defensive skill and some offensive punch. Pushing Buchnevich down there there assuming he’s not playing well because he’s not scoring isn’t the best strategy, especially when you’re using one of your best playmakers seven minutes a game.
The sad part is when Buchnevich actually does play with skilled players (mostly on the power play) he’s a joy to watch. The puck moves off his stick like silk, he needs to shoot more simply because his shot can be lethal; even without it, though, his vision opens up lanes on a Mats Zuccarello level (and with a ton of room to grow!). These aren’t even just eye tests he’s passing, he’s got one of the top P/60 metrics around (even now) and has 14 points in 20 games.
He’s got a 51% corsi, leads the team in expected goals per/60 with a 3.09 and had a PDO of just 101%. These statistics don’t feel like a mirage, either, since he’s been wildly successful as a teenager in a man’s league (the KHL) before coming to the NHL.
And yet here he sits, on the fourth line, a victim of “performance” assessment.
It would be one thing if Vigneault was sitting him to make sure his back didn’t flare up, but such opportunities to admit these things have come and gone. Some in the Rangers blogosphere are using the excuse that so he doesn’t hit a wall like Vesey, but that’s a load of (for lack of a better word) crap.
Buchnevich played in 58 regular season KHL games last year and then 14 more playoff games -- totaling to 72 games. That’s not the 37-game wall Vesey hit; not even close.
Buchnevich has been one of the bright spots on the team up front this year (which is saying a lot when it comes to forwards). His development should be in full throttle rather than sitting in a fourth-line role playing seven minutes a game.
For now he’s the victim of performance assessment. Tomorrow it might be Vesey.
It’ll be frustrating either way.