When the NHL season opens in October, Oscar Lindberg will be suiting up for just his third NHL season, and it will be his first as a member of the newly minted Vegas Golden Knights.
Lindberg was drafted 57th overall in the 2010 draft by the Phoenix Coyotes, and joined the New York Rangers organization in a trade that sent Ethan Werek to Arizona. In his final SHL season, Lindberg tallied 42 points in 55 regular season games and 12 points in 13 games en route to winning the Stefan Liv Memorial Trophy as playoff MVP. He spent two successful seasons with the Hartford Wolf Pack and then made the Rangers’ main roster in 2015-16.
The Rangers lost Lindberg in the expansion draft, and at the time it was one that was thought to have a minimal impact in the grand scheme of things given the team’s center depth.
Then the Derek Stepan trade happened and suddenly the Rangers depth down the middle vanished. Lindberg turns 26 on October 29, 2017, and although he is not a prospect at this point, it feels like he has yet to scratch the surface of what he can become. In other words, Lindberg showed what he was capable of, but there were questions as to whether he could accomplish more in a larger role.
Now is not the time to play the game of what could have been, but it is a wonderful time to look back on the 2016-17 campaign.
Lindberg underwent simultaneous bilateral hip labral surgery on May 6, 2016, and was given an expected recovery time of six months, but he was healthy enough to make his season debut on October 23 vs. the Arizona Coyotes. Although he was cleared to return, Lindberg was clearly rusty as he tallied a meager five assists through his first 26 games. In Game 27 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he recorded his first goal of the season and added an assist for good measure.
Lindberg would tally seven more goals and six assists in the 38 other games he appeared in with an overall line of 8-12-20, and 0.31 points per game in 65 total games. Offensively it was a “down” year because he posted a line of 13-15-28, and 0.41 points per game in 68 game 2015-16 campaign.
This past season could be considered a “down” year because he appeared to decline on the surface, but it is easy to see why he was down slightly after his return from surgery.
What isn’t easy to see is why Alain Vigneault decided to cut Lindberg’s ice time in his sophomore season. In his rookie year, Lindberg averaged 12:11 a game, which is fair number considering he was deployed primarily – 11:01 a game – in 5v5 situations. The remaining usage was on special teams with Lindberg averaging 00:20 a game on the penalty kill and 00:48 on the power play. Based on his success it would have made sense to give him a bigger role, but it appears his struggles after returning early gave Vigneault the impression that he wasn’t deserving on such a role.
Fast forward to this past season, Lindberg averaged 10:49 a game, with 10:35 of that time coming in 5v5 situations. He saw a decline of 0:12 in penalty killing time per game and a 00:43 cut in power play time per game. While the loss in power play time is understandable given the addition of Mika Zibanejad, the loss of 5v5 and shorthanded time doesn’t make sense. If anything, he should have been given more time in those situations to make up for the loss of opportunity on the power play.
The reason behind Lindberg’s reduction in time is because Vigneault used 2016-17 to try and make Kevin Hayes somewhat of a shutdown center, not something that was essentially in the team’s best interest.
So, I'm not sure Kevin Hayes was ready for the increased defensive role he's been given this year pic.twitter.com/QKPP0dp2Q4— Kevin (@Kpower90) March 10, 2017
Vigneault started to use him in defensive situations, and Hayes led Ranger centers in average penalty kill TOI per game with 01:25 – representing a jump of 01:24 per game from the season prior. He went from not killing penalties at all to doing so all the time, talk about a real baptism by fire.
This exercise caused Lindberg to get lost in the shuffle, therefore he didn’t have as many opportunities to generate offense as he did the season before. Vigneault should have found more situations to use Lindberg, but he too often got “lost” at the end of the bench.
A look at his HERO chart shows that Lindberg offensively was on the right track, but he just didn’t have the ice time.
It also shows that he slightly below average shot generation and suppression numbers, but it is hard to get a read on how responsible Lindberg is for that himself since Jesper Fast was his only frequent linemate. The duo spent 401 minutes together in 5v5 situations finishing with a 52.9 score adjusted Corsi For %.
After that, it was a revolving door that included 190 minutes with Brandon Pirri, 166 minutes with Jimmy Vesey, 156 minutes with Tanner Glass, 135 minutes with Pavel Buchnevich and 112 minutes with Michael Grabner according to Data Rink.
It is fair to say that each was a mixed bag, and the dramatic highs and lows rolled together played a factor in Lindberg finishing middle of the road.
Overall, Lindberg was a reliable bottom-six center who was clearly capable of generating more offense. He knew where to go on the ice and sometimes it was a situation of him playing with individuals who didn’t know what to do with the puck. When he got to skate with talented players, he got to have fun.
Had he been given some more ice time it is possible he could have been a 35-point center or better. It also would have been prudent to give Lindberg some consistent line mates. Also, shifting between lines and the wing and center didn’t do him any favors either this season.
To be frank, Lindberg isn’t a world beater and by all accounts is replaceable. However, it is fair to say the Rangers didn’t use him to his full potential, and they could have used this season as a trial run toward seeing if they had something worth keeping.
In Vegas, he will get a chance to prove himself, and it will be interesting to see what his ceiling will be in a new environment.
Lindberg did his job well when he played and was clearly capable of more.