The Rangers made the stunning move to demote Lias Andersson to the Hartford Wolf Pack, giving an NHL spot to, among others, Brett Howden.
The discourse surrounding Andersson had already been noxious, and this decision by the Rangers is tinder added to an already lively fire. People who were already convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Andersson is the next Great Ranger Bust have their opinions temporarily validated. Those who decided that any Andersson criticism was negativity for the sake of negativity are now enduring a cognitive dissonance of sorts, with the fallout to be determined.
Of course, the decision by the Rangers comes with a heavy dose of necessary context. As General Manager Jeff Gorton mentioned on Friday, the team “could easily find 5, 7, or 8 minutes” per game at the NHL level. If the Rangers made a list of the twelve-best forwards in the organization, Andersson would make the cut. That’s not how it works, though. The Rangers are looking to do what is best for his long-term development, and that means going down to play 20 minutes per night in Hartford even despite “making the cut,” per se, for the NHL roster in the most literal sense. Had the Rangers, as was the goal, traded a forward or two during the offseason, then the situation would also likely be different right now. Not to mention that there are potential salary cap management benefits to the decision; should he play nine or fewer NHL games his entry level contract will carry over for another season.
Still, Let’s be clear: Andersson not making this roster is a categorical disappointment. For better or worse, the biggest selling point on Andersson at the time of the 2017 draft was how close to NHL-ready he appeared. The sky isn’t falling, but a practically 20-year-old Andersson starting the 2018-2019 season in the AHL can not be what the Rangers originally anticipated. As Phil wrote on Sunday, it’s okay to admit this. One is not a bad fan for acknowledging this reality.
Nor is it ascribing to him a death sentence. Andersson is clearly on the cusp, and based on his output the last two seasons there is every reason to believe he will have a healthy NHL career. Of, course, the Rangers drafted him to be much more than just a generic NHLer. Let’s take a look at recent AHL forwards to see how often similarly aged players become marquee players.
First, let’s establish some criteria. This list is limited to the previous 10 seasons, but not counting the 2012-2013 season in which the lockout forced a number of would-be NHL players down to the minor leagues. Included are players who are up to four months older or younger than Andersson. Finally, there was a minimum 20 game requirement. These are all arbitrary cutoffs, but some had to be made. Here are the top-fifty point producers who fit that criteria, ranked by points-per-game.
(All data via Prospect-Stats.com)
Out of the 50 players on this list, I have noted eight. In orange are four players who have become legitimate NHL stars. The kind that who can be central figures on a contender and whom any team would be unequivocally thrilled to draft seventh overall. In faded orange are two players who are extremely close but, in my mind, not quite across the line. In red are two guys who have shown the ability but for whom it’s too early to judge.
This list also does not account for any players who instead played in Europe, college hockey, or the CHL.
Based on recent history, playing in the AHL as a 20-year-old is not a disqualification from becoming an impact player in the NHL. There is a decent list here. However, eight (optimistically) over the course of 10 seasons doesn’t exactly speak to it being a commonality, either.
This is all for nothing if Andersson is back up with the Rangers anytime soon, and that’s a distinct possibility. Brett Howden and Filip Chytil both had strong preseasons, but are still raw and could find themselves similarly demoted at some point. Of course, injuries are inevitable as well. That Andersson will reach that (arbitrary) 20-game threshold in the AHL is far from a certainty. He could quite easily be back in New York by, say, Halloween.
A significant stint in the AHL this season would still not be game over in terms of his reaching the kind of upside that would justify his selection. However, he would have to produce at a high level to keep himself in that conversation. For now, there’s no need to come even within reaching distance of the panic button. Certainly, though, the optics of his demotion are not the best, and a raised eyebrow is more than warranted.