A little more than three weeks removed from the finalization of the Rangers’ opening night roster, all three of the Rangers’ premier center prospects - Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, and Lias Andersson - have played eight games. Chytil and Howden with the Rangers, while Andersson has suited up for the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League. With 10 percent of the NHL season already complete, this is a good time to analyze first impressions and figure out what steps - if any - should be taken to reshuffle the deck.
Brett Howden was the surprise addition to the roster, and he continued to surprise with his play to start the season. I’m still confident in my analysis of Howden as an elite third-line center or fringe second-line center when in his prime, but I was 100% wrong about his NHL readiness. He’s not only surviving but actively contributing at many moments. Four points in eight games are nothing to shrug off, and especially for a player getting most of his opportunities at even strength.
I do think the Rangers need to be careful. Brett Howden started out hot, but his on-ice impact has started to trend downward. At least, it has as measured by shot attempts.
With Howden, the Rangers run the risk of falling victim to anchoring bias. He made a great first impression, which is great, but they don’t count any more than, say, two or three games in January. It does go both ways, as recency bias exists as well. There’s no reason for David Quinn to make any major changes to Howden’s usage because of a few turbulent showings. Ups and downs are to be expected for a 20-year-old. If the bad games begin to outnumber the good ones, then at that point the team will need to rethink where Howden belongs and what is best for his development. We’re not there yet, though. There should be no guarantees that he remains for the whole season, but for now Howden has absolutely earned an extended stay in the NHL.
Filip Chytil has been remarkably consistent this season. Both by shot attempt metrics as well as expected goals, the Rangers perform far better when he is on the ice than when he isn’t. While Quinn is not exactly leaning on him in tough situations, Chytil is not getting sheltered, either.
No goals and two assists through eight games isn’t an exciting stat line. A lot of that is due to problems out of Chytil’s control. The Rangers are shooting a measly 5.6% during Chytil’s shifts, whereas the league average shooting percentage so far this season is 9.6%. We can debate how much of that is random variance versus poor finishing from the Rangers, but as it pertains to Chytil he probably deserves one or two more points than he’s earned.
Even still, expectations should be tempered. Chytil turned 19 in September. There are a number of good NHL centers - Sean Couturier, Ryan O’Reilly, and Ryan Johansen to name a few - who produced at a rate of 25-to-35 points per 82 games as a 19-year-old. As long as Chytil is picking up roughly three or four points every 10 games, then he’s right on track offensively.
The bigger question is whether Chytil is better off playing center in Hartford or wing in the NHL. Howden’s emergence has only added to the team’s overabundance of centers, and so Quinn has resorted to playing Chytil on the wing recently in order to get him on the ice more frequently. That’s a great solution for now, but he is potentially the team’s first-line center of the future, and so he needs to learn the position. Like with Howden, this is something to monitor going forward, but for now there should be no concerns. Even if he remains on the wing, there is no doubt that Chytil can compete at the NHL level and will improve immensely the more he plays.
Lias Andersson’s demotion to the AHL was stunning and disappointing. As I pointed out before the season began, should Andersson produce at a high rate with Hartford then it would erase any major concerns. So far, he has followed through by registering three goals and five assists through eight games. One assist was a fluke, while I’m not convinced he even touched the puck on another for which he was credited. Every player gets cheap points over the course of the season, though, and he’s had a number of scoring chances which didn’t go his way.
He does continue to excel away from the puck, as on numerous occasions he’s been a forechecking force. Here is one of many great examples of his prowess. Note that Hartford is doing a full line change aside from Andersson (#28), who manages to singlehandedly not only delay the breakout but altogether force a turnover.
We can debate Andersson’s upside ad nauseam, but between his production and play away from the puck he very clearly could step onto NHL ice right now and hold his own. Right now, that change would make no sense for the Rangers nor Andersson.
As already highlighted, Quinn already has his hands full with Howden and Chytil. Adding a third prospect to the mix would be way too much. The Rangers also have to build as much trade value as they can for Kevin Hayes, Ryan Spooner, and Vlad Namestnikov. they’re overbooked at center as is.
For Andersson, there should be no rush. He’s been very good for Hartford, but why not reach an even higher level? One area he does need to improve is in shot generation, as 19 shots in eight games is underwhelming for someone of his age and ability. Part of that comes down to a need for Andersson to find ways to create offense for himself, which is an aspect of the game he is still working on. After the whirlwind of last season, it would also do Andersson a lot of good to stick with one team for a while. If Andersson can build up confidence over a long stretch of games while working to improve in two or three specific specific areas, then he’s going to arrive in New York a much better player
There are good reasons to change the plans for all of Howden, Chytil, and Andersson, but still far better reasons to stay the course right now. As I already mentioned regarding Andersson, it’s good not to complicate things for three young guys who are trying to catch their bearings. The interesting dynamic is that all three situations are intrinsically tied. What the Rangers decide to do with each player going forward will depend on what is happening with the others. It’s a long season, and it’s very likely we eventually see two of them in Hartford or all three with the Rangers. Immediately, though, every player is where he belongs.