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Does Pavel Buchnevich Deserve to be in the Top Six?

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Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Rangers

Yes.

Oddly enough, it’s often questioned whether the third-highest scorer on the New York Rangers deserves top-six ice time. Maybe it’s because he really hasn’t received it. But Pavel Buchnevich has scored at a high rate this season despite his ice time.

Even when Buchnevich is technically deployed on the first line, he isn’t used in a first line capacity. Regardless of his place in the lineup, he frequents the bottom of the ice time charts, and that’s disconcerting considering the impact he has when he’s used.

In all situations he’s earned 27 points, behind only J.T. Miller’s 28 and Mats Zuccarello’s 32. Unlike Miller and Zuccarello though, he’s only averaged 14:41 all-situation minutes per game, while Miller averages 16:57 and Zuccarello leads the forwards with 18:54. Then again, the fact that Zuccarello plays in all situations, while Buchnevich only receives even strength and power play time, does give some explanation for the time disparity.

At 5v5, Buchnevich leads the team with 18 points; he ranks second in primary points with 14. Yet still, his ice time is underwhelming. The only players to average less than Buchnevich’s 11.44 minutes are Vinni Lettieri (11.23), Boo Nieves (9.63), and Paul Carey (9.51).

Buchnevich started the season on the “KZB” line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider for six games; he earned three assists with that combination at even strength and on the power play. By the seventh game of the season though, he was already demoted to the fourth line, where he stayed for another six games.

First, he skated with Grabner and Crackell for two games (only adding one power play assist), then he and Grabner skated with a number of combinations in the next two games since the Rangers only dressed 11 forwards (notching only one even strength assist that was earned while deployed on the first line for a shift against the San Jose Sharks). Then, Boo Nieves was recalled and skated between Buchnevich and Grabner for two games; in their first game together, Buchnevich added two even-strength goals.

Buchnevich returned to the first line on October 31 against the Vegas Golden Knights; he scored one even strength goal and one power play assist in that first night with the combination. The KZB line stayed in tact for 12 consecutive games and Buchnevich tallied 9 points (five even strength, four power play) in that time.

For the next 9 games, the first line had a new look because Zibanejad was out with a concussion. David Desharnais moved up to center Kreider and Buchnevich, and while their underlying numbers took a dive, Buchnevich still continued to accumulate points (six even strength points). Once Zibanejad returned, the KZB line was back in action… but only for two games, even though Buchnevich tallied an assist.

Buchnevich was then sent back to the fourth line, this time with Nieves and Carey. While he didn’t score with his linemates on the fourth line against Toronto, when the team was desperate for offense he was moved up to the first line and gave Miller a primary assist on a goal that brought the game within reach.

He was still deployed on the fourth line the following game against the Capitals, until he had to move up in the lineup (to play with Vesey and Desharnais) when Kreider left injured. All together, he spent four games with Vesey and Desharnais, and he didn’t score once with that combination; his only point over that stretch came on the man advantage in Chicago.

By the Rangers January 6 tilt in Arizona, they were craving offense. Head coach Alain Vigneault moved Buchnevich back to the first line, citing his chemistry with Zibanejad. It didn’t take much longer than a period for Buchnevich to be demoted back to the fourth line though, with Jesper Fast replacing him.

The following night in Vegas, Buchnevich was a healthy scratch while Fast was deployed on the first line and Carey took shifts on the second line. The Rangers lost that game to the Golden Knights.

He returned to the lineup against the Islanders, in the bottom six with Nieves and Vesey. He was back with Vesey and Desharnais the next game against Pittsburgh, and again was held off the scoresheet.

Going into Tuesday’s matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Rangers had lost their last three games, had only one win in their last five, and hadn’t scored four goals in a game or collected a regulation win since their December 19 matchup against the Ducks.

Having one of the most dynamic forwards on the team in the bottom six for eight of those games, and in the press box for one of them, may explain why their offense was suffering – especially when they were already without Kreider for most of that stretch. So an in effort to turn things around, one lineup change on Tuesday included moving Buchnevich to the first line to skate alongside Zibanejad and Rick Nash. And early in the first period, Buchnevich put one of his greatest assets on display: his vision and ability to send a player a perfect pass, one that ended up in the back of the net.

Buchnevich wasn’t scoring much at all in his last stretch of games – and his play somehow convinced the coaches to make him a healthy scratch three games before that. And Vigneault had recently stated he was more interested in what players were doing in recent games, not earlier this season.

So why wasn’t Buchnevich scoring?

Even before starting his NHL career, Buchnevich explained that he isn’t “quite a goal scorer.” Rather, he’s “a thinking player, a cerebral player, and [he’s] a playmaker.” Buchnevich has demonstrated that he has a lethal shot – one that often comes from a scoring area – but, that’s not where he focuses his game. His exceptional vision helps him thread passes to his teammates, but that means that his teammates have to be able to get that pass in the back of the net.

Moving away from first-line caliber players can limit the times those passes are turned into goals. It’s nothing against those players, but they may not have quite as effective shots as other players on the team like Zibanejad and Kreider. It’s also possible his game just didn’t compliment those of other players, like Desharnais and Vesey.

Overall, it doesn’t help to not have a consistent place in the lineup. Buchnevich even noted that this was a problem for him in the second half of last season, “After the injury I didn’t have a fixed spot in the lineup. I was going from one line to another and I couldn’t find my best game.”

Once his scoring slowed after returning from injury last season, he was demoted to the fourth line, and soon after was moved in and out of the lineup. His scoring subsequently stalled due to that inconsistency in linemates and place in the lineup. This was a challenge for Buchnevich to overcome, and the coaches didn’t help him remedy it.

The same could be said this season. For a player that had a rough rookie season, despite playing as well as the Rangers could have hoped, Buchnevich didn’t have a consistent role in the lineup. This season, after getting off to a strong start on the first line, he was again demoted to the fourth line. After he returned to the first line, and maintained that role even without Zibanejad in the lineup, he yet again was sent to the fourth line and eventually to the pressbox for a game. It’s been a common theme throughout this year: the Rangers struggle in a game – even if it’s not at all because of the play of Buchnevich – and he’s the player that is often inexplicably demoted.

Throughout this season, Buchnevich’s ice time hasn’t reflected his skill level. The highest he’s finished on the Rangers’ forward ice time charts is third, but he’s also finished games with the least ice time on the team. Of the 44 games he’s played this season, he’s finished in the top six of ice time among forwards 16 times and only twice in the top four; the other 28 times he’s finished in the bottom six.

But his role and frequently limited ice time usually doesn’t relate to the Rangers having positive results, since he’s one of their best players and leading scorers. Regardless of his performance over the last few games, it makes sense why he was promoted to the first line again.

*Chart by @ChartingHockey

That holds true even while setting aside his power play time, which obviously boosts his production. Not only does he lead with 18 points at 5v5, but the rate at which he’s scored them leads the team (2.15 points per 60). He’s scored 1.67 primary points per 60; that ranks second only to Lettieri’s inflated 1.78 per hour (since he’s scored two primary points in 67.35 minutes).

Buchnevich’s underlying numbers rank highly among his teammates too. His 2.26 game score per 60 leads the team. With Buchnevich on the ice, the Rangers take 49.3 percent of the shot attempts, which is above average relative to his teammates (plus-3.95) and second only to Zibanejad. The Rangers generated 58.79 shot attempts per 60 minutes with Buchnevich on the ice; they only create more with Zibanejad on the ice. And to dispel the idea that his defensive play isn’t up to par, the Rangers only allow fewer shot attempts with Carey or Zibanejad on the ice.

With Buchnevich on the ice, the Rangers aren’t just generating shots, but they’re generating quality shots. His 52.03 expected goals for is third on the team (plus-4.39 relative), and his expected goals for of 2.92 per 60 is the best on the team.

It’s also clear that Buchnevich’s play has had a positive influence on most of his teammate’s results.

*Data via NaturalStatTrick

Although the Rangers claim to have a “sophisticated stat package,” they probably still favor more traditional statistics like goals. And even though goals are random and aren’t the most indicative statistic to base lineup decisions off, Buchnevich still ranks highly in terms of goals for and against. His 57.89 goals for percentage is the third best on the team; he’s on the ice for an above average 2.62 goals per 60, and he’s been on the ice for the third lowest rate against (1.91 per 60).

So really, the question is less “why wasn’t he scoring when he was skating alongside bottom six players,” and more “why isn’t he in the top six on a consistent basis and why doesn’t he receive top minutes?

None of this is a surprise to anyone familiar with Vigneault’s developmental style. Similar situations were seen in Vancouver and were heavily cited when he was fired, and it’s been problematic throughout his time in New York as well. Vigneault is more lenient with players that are defensively inclined while limiting the opportunities of those with creative instincts. And after last season, specifically with Buchnevich, it shouldn’t come as a shock. Yet this continued treatment doesn’t just risk the development of a player with a high ceiling, but damages the Rangers’ chances of winning games now and in the future.

There were a lot of expectations for Buchnevich when he joined the Rangers, and he’s lived up to those expectations and shined when given the opportunity. But if he’s only going to be used as a fourth liner, and not put in a place to succeed, it shouldn’t be a surprise when he isn’t scoring like a first line player.

*5v5 data via Corsica.hockey