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Should the Rangers be Concerned About Buchnevich’s Development?

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NHL: New York Rangers at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers drafted Pavel Buchnevich 75th overall in 2013. When he played in the Kontinental Hockey League for the Severstal Cherepovets and SKA Saint Petersburg, the Rangers were able to see and anticipate the player that was coming to New York. His skating and speed were evident from his play, as was his shooting proficiency. Additionally, Buchnevich demonstrated his vision, puck moving, and playmaking abilities. The self-described “cerebral” player showed his raw talent each time he played, as well as his potential to become a key player for the Rangers.

As much as Buchnevich has displayed his natural skill, a player of his caliber’s development is still crucial — particularly when adjusting from the KHL to the NHL.

In May 2016, Buchnevich signed his entry-level contract with the Rangers. Buchnevich’s three year, $2.775 million contract included a cap hit of $925,000 per season and $92,500 in signing bonuses each season. The 21 year-old’s contract also includes a “European Assignment Clause,” meaning that Buchnevich can opt out of his contract to return to a league in Europe — such as the KHL — if he is not on the Rangers roster.

Despite his opt-out clause, he only played 41 regular season games. Yes, his season was shortened due to injury, but nonetheless he was not used enough when he was healthy. And because of his usage when he actually dressed for games, as well as how often he was a healthy scratch, it has to be questioned whether he is being developed correctly.

In those 41 regular season games, Buchnevich scored 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists). At 5-on-5, his 2.11 points per 60 ranked the highest on the team in the regular season. His primary points per 60 of 1.45 ranked fifth on the team, behind J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, and Michael Grabner. Additionally, he appeared in five playoff games and earned one assist.

*Data via Corsica.hockey

Even after a strong effort with the Rangers, Buchnevich was scratched in favor of players including Matt Puempel and Tanner Glass sporadically this season. Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault’s reliance on veterans over younger players is not anything new — particularly when dealing with Glass — who he has often played in favor of younger, more offensive players throughout his time in New York. In fact, Buchnevich joined a long list of Rangers that have been scratched for Glass (Brandon Pirri, Matt Puempel, Anthony Duclair, Emerson Etem, Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, James Sheppard, Viktor Stalberg, and Lee Stempniak).

By benching Buchnevich and inconsistently using him in the lineup, Vigneault may have impeded his development. When Buchnevich was used, his ice time and role were often limited — such as in the Rangers’ second round Game 2 double overtime loss, when he was deployed for 5:46 minutes.

This occurred in the regular season as well. For example, Buchnevich was relegated to fourth line minutes in January and February. After not earning a point in three straight games and taking a minor penalty in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in February, his ice time was cut to nine minutes and he was a healthy scratch the following game.

*Chart via HockeyViz

Buchnevich appeared on each line during the regular season and was deployed with alternating teammates. He was featured on lines with Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Brandon Pirri, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, and Kevin Hayes this season. But it was Buchnevich whose faults were magnified — regardless of who he played with. Oftentimes, if Buchnevich was faulted with a turnover, he would subsequently be demoted without having the opportunity to either remedy the situation or learn from his mistakes.

Vigneault acted similarly with Hayes last year, even after he excelled during his rookie season. In his second season though, if Hayes struggled at all he was penalized, while veterans consistently had lackluster performances and went unpunished.

While Hayes bounced back this season, it seemed like it had more to do with his conditioning in the offseason than Vigneault’s coaching. Additionally this season, Hayes was shifted to a more defensive role — moving to the third line most often with Grabner and Miller. While Hayes handled his defensive role, it is uncertain whether a player with his natural offensive skill is best served in that role, again raising the question of Vigneault’s development of forwards.

This exact criticism of Vigneault has been mentioned before — as it is something that was an issue when he coached the Vancouver Canucks. After Vigneault was fired by the Canucks, the Vancouver Sun addressed why he deserved his fate and noted his development of players. “Clearly, young players who were committed to defense first (like Tanev and Hansen) would be in the good books of Vigneault, while those with creative offensive instincts (Hodgson and Kassian) would be forever shackled. At yesterday’s press conference, Gillis acknowledged the importance of getting contributions from younger players going forward, a passive indictment of Vigneault’s record in that regard.”

Canucks Army also tackled this after Vigneault’s dismissal, citing the treatment of young players like Zack Kassian. “Let’s take Zack Kassian, pretty much the crown jewel of Vancouver’s anemic youth movement. He performed well with the twins early on this season, but he’s since seen time mostly on the fourth line or on the third line alongside Maxim Lapierre and David Booth (neither of whom has much offensive value).” Jordan Schroeder was in a similar situation: “The same goes for Jordan Schroeder, who was snaktebit in his rookie season and found himself on the fourth line becasue he was failing to ‘make plays.’ Struggling to make plays when you’re playing with Tom Sestito and Dale Weise on an under-skilled fourth line and playing out of position on the power-play doesn’t sound to me like the most damning criticism, frankly.”

Sound familiar?

Hayes is an example here again, because once he showed defensive abilities this season, his leash was finally lengthened. And players like Fast, who have a propensity for a defensive game, are given more freedom and opportunities than those who are more offensively inclined and do not show the same defensive tendencies.

When Vigneault was hired by the Rangers, it was to lead a veteran team to the Stanley Cup. But as this team has evolved over the years, young players that require development have been added. Even though the roster has changed, Vigneault has not adapted his coaching style, still prioritizing his veterans over his younger players, regardless of who earns their ice time.

Buchnevich, in his limited opportunities, has earned his ice time. And for a team that has craved playmaking and offensive opportunities that a player of Buchnevich’s caliber can create, they should have looked to him more. Instead, Vigneault focused on what he saw as his defensive deficiencies and limited his role — stunting his opportunities to grow.

Had Buchnevich’s defensive play been that egregious, then it should have actively been worked on. However, how he performed on either side of the ice did not merit the demotion he received. Vigneault risked Buchnevich’s development — a player that is seen as a key piece to the Rangers future — for minor incidences. Occasionally benching a player like Buchnevich is one thing. Having a superior option that genuinely improves the team is another thing. But there was no such replacement for Buchnevich and this was not an insubstantial number of instances.

A player’s first few years in the NHL can be so crucial to their career. The Rangers should have anticipated how Buchnevich’s development would have progressed when he joined Vigneault’s team, since Vigneault has treated young players similarly throughout his career. If his treatment of younger players is not questioned and remedied, it is essentially condoned by the organization.

Changing a player’s fundamental game and detracting from their strengths does not help a player succeed. Benching a player for every little mistake can also diminish a player’s confidence and, consequently, negatively affect their game. A player does have to understand constructive criticism, but at a certain point there has to be a line. A coach’s job is to facilitate a team’s success by making each individual player become successful — regardless of their personal preference for or loyalty to a certain player.

The Rangers are risking not only the development of a single player, but the future of their team, by allowing this troubling pattern to continue. And the risk is far too great, especially when it involves a player with as much potential as Buchnevich.