American Thanksgiving has more significance than just being the quarter-mark of the season in the hockey world. Over 77 percent of teams in a playoff spot as of Thanksgiving have gone on to make the postseason in the last five years, according to the NHL.
The New York Rangers, in their first full rebuilding year, are currently second in the Metropolitan Division with 26 points in 22 games (12-8-2). With that in mind, we at Blueshirt Banter decided to dive into the Rangers progress this season and how it lines up with our preseason expectations.
Which player has surprised you the most in the first quarter of the season?
Joe: Brett Howden. His 12 points in 21 games aren’t eye-popping, but his overall play has been something unexpected, specifically on offense. Of his 12 points, nine have come at even strength, and he earned a trusted role in Quinn’s system after just a week on the job. His possession metrics aren’t great, but they’re not terrible, either — and he is being thrown to the wolves a bit in terms of being thrusted into a top-six role as a 20-year-old.
Tom: Brett Howden has been great for the Rangers. In many ways he was the forgotten prospect, not just in New York but in Tampa Bay. In my opinion, the emergence of Brayden Point played a role in making Howden expendable, and missing out on a chance to play on a stacked Lightning team is something that he is probably using as motivation. That and the fact that the media talked about the Blueshirts’ prospect depth at center by focusing on Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil in great detail.
Mike: It’s hard not to say Brett Howden here, isn’t it? There’s no Ranger prospect in the NHL or AHL who has seen his stock rise more in the last year. His ability to produce in his current role has been something special — the only rookie forward outscoring him at 5v5 is Elias Pettersson. Howden’s game still needs some polish, but there are a lot of encouraging signs that go beyond his eight primary points in his first 19 games of NHL hockey.
Phil: Brett Howden, Brett Howden, Brett Howden. The 20-year-old center was among a group of roster hopefuls coming into Rangers’ training camp this past summer and forced his way into a conversation few had anticipated him for. So much so, one might argue he actually outplayed Lias Andersson for a spot that was Andersson’s to lose. If not for the breakout performance of Elias Pettersson in Vancouver, Howden might even be laying claim to a little more Calder talk given he’s third in scoring among all NHL rookies this season (4-8-12 in 21 games) at the time of this writing.
Kevin: Brett Howden is the runaway answer for me. Coming into training camp, Howden wasn’t really expected to make an impact on the main roster so soon and then he went out there and just did the thing. He’s shown that he belongs in the NHL and, at least right now, is making the McDonagh trade look better and better. The big, skilled center has meshed with almost every winger he’s played with and looks more and more comfortable as every game goes by. He just needs to not use the endboards as brakes. A quick runner up for me has to be Freddie Claesson, dude was signed as a 7th defenseman and has arguably been one of the few bright spots on the back end this year.
Jack: It’s hard to make an argument for anybody other than Brett Howden, but that has more to do with the rest of the team’s performance than Howden’s. Howden has been solid through the first quarter of the season, skating in nearly every game on every line at one point or another. His shot and chance metrics leave a lot to be desired, but leading the team in 5 on 5 scoring isn’t something anybody that he’d be doing at this point in the season.
Adam: Definitely Brett Howden. After watching him in the WHL I was certain that he would need at least a full year in the AHL. He not only made the NHL roster, but has proven to be one of the team’s better players through the first quarter of the season. He’s almost singlehandedly saving the McDonagh/Miller trade from an optics standpoint right now.
Scott: Brett Howden has definitely surprised me the most. There was no doubt that he was a solid prospect but I don’t think anyone expected him to have such an immediate impact in the NHL. It’s hard for any player to go straight from juniors to the NHL, much less score 12 points in their first 21 games. However, since he’s already been talked about a lot by the other Rangers writers, I’ll give my input on Filip Chytil, who has greatly surprised me this season. I loved Chytil as a prospect but realistically I saw him spending a majority of his time in the AHL. And while he hasn’t torn up the NHL, he has already looked very comfortable in the big leagues and has had a huge positive impact on the roster. His immediate impact has been a great positive surprise for me and I can’t wait to see him grow and develop his skills further
Shayna: I agree with everyone with Brett Howden. He was a dark horse to make the team in training camp and preseason, especially after getting off to a hot start. After that though, he not only earned a spot on the opening roster, but carved himself out a role here. Also in agreement with Kevin’s choice of Claesson; his last season in Ottawa may not have been the most positive, but he’s been nothing but solid to start the year.
Who has disappointed you the most so far? Do you think they’ll rebound in the second half?
Joe: I think there are easy answers to this question and more complicated answers.
The easy answer is guys like Cody McLeod, Vinni Lettieri, Ryan Spooner, etc. All of them underperforming, some of it expected, but even so. Spooner was the bad Spooner we knew existed somewhere inside of him and got traded. Lettieri somehow had no points in 14 games, and toward the end started taking unnecessary penalties. McLeod has been McLeod. Oh, and then there’s Marc Staal, but he’s been fine if you had realistic expectations of him going into the year.
The complicated answer is Pavel Buchnevich, who got off to a struggling start and was just playing his best hockey before he broke his thumb and will be sidelined for up to six weeks. Brady Skjei, for as good as is start has been, has found himself in the press box recently. The two of them were expected to take on major roles and have struggled in their own way.
Tom: Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei haven’t gotten off to the starts I would have liked. Buchnevich was starting to put it together and then in complete bad luck broke his finger. Skjei’s numbers are underwhelming, but somewhat in line with where he was at this point last year. Both players have shown an ability to produce in the past, and I think in Skjei’s case there’s something to be said about learning a new system and rotating partners. He needs to produce after being given the trust of a long-term deal, and I think going forward he will be better off than he’s been thus far.
Mike: I am sure I’ll catch some heat for saying this, but I think David Quinn is my answer here. The decisions and tactics of the Rangers’ new bench boss have been a major storyline in the first quarter of the season. His message of accountability looked bold and promising at first, but now that we’ve seen every defenseman but Marc Staal scratched from the lineup, it is beginning to look biased. Of course, Quinn is still figuring out his job and this team. Quinn deserves our patience, even when it seems like he’s going out of his way to test it.
Phil: The easy answer here is Ryan Spooner. The right one, painful as it is to admit, is probably Pavel Buchnevich.
While Spooner was shipped off to Edmonton early in the season in a your-problem-for-mine-style trade, Buchnevich has had middling results through the first quarter of the season. He’s tied for sixth on the club in points (9) and has five goals on the year, yet despite being free of Alain Vigneault’s notoriously short leash, he’s failed to gallop with the room David Quinn gave him to start the season. He’s even spent various points this season on the fourth line, and was a healthy scratch twice in the club’s first 12 games to start the year. To make matters worse, his struggles have been capped off with an ill-timed broken thumb that promises to sideline him for a month or more.
There’s plenty of season left to right the ship, but it’s difficult not to be underwhelmed with the early play of a player as important as Buchnevich is to the Rangers’ big picture rebuild.
Kevin: Well, it was going to be Ryan Spooner but he’s Edmonton’s problem now. My answer for most disappointing has to be Kevin Shattenkirk. Now, I know that the defense as a whole is a tire fire, but something has seemed a tad off with Shatty early on this year; his play on both ends doesn’t seem as...crisp...as it was last year. There are some growing pains to be expected with a new head coach and a new system, and being one of the few defensemen on the roster that understand that there are two zones to play in, it’s to be expected that there are going to be some bumps on the road but Shattenkirk just hasn’t had that extra gear in his passing or vision that he had last season before the knee injury.
Jack: Neal Pionk was one of the team’s most polarizing players among the fanbase after he was recalled last year, and that has continued to be the case this season. Pionk’s raw scoring numbers stand out (4-10-14 in 20 games), but the second year pro has been an abject disaster when the Rangers aren’t on the man-advantage. Of Pionk’s 14 ponts, only two of them have come at 5 on 5, which ranks last among the team’s regular defenders. Pionk also ranks last in adjusted relative Corsi For%, Goals For% and Expected Goals% at evens, and no other Ranger is even in his ballpark. I was hoping last year’s poor play was the result of Pionk adjusting to the NHL, but this appears to be the player he is. There’s nothing wrong with getting a player in the mold of Marc-Andre Bergeron and Anton Babchuk for free the way New York did with Pionk, but a complete defenseman would be ideal.
Adam: Brendan Smith. Last year clearly wasn’t good enough, but his struggles were massively overstated. I was optimistic that with a new coaching staff and a fresh perspective he would return to form as a shutdown, second-pairing defenseman. Instead, he has struggled arguably more than he did last year and this is looking like a problematic contract.
Scott: There have been a few Ranger players who have disappointed but Shattenkirk’s poor start has been especially disappointing. Once a solid top-pairing defenseman, Shattenkirk hasn’t looked like his old self with the Rangers. It’s not that he’s been bad (especially when comparing him to other defenders on the team like Marc Staal) but you know he can do much better. It doesn’t help that he’s not seeing time on the first power play unit but he hasn’t done a great job of individually generating offense and initiating quality plays. I had high hopes for him and do think he’ll turn it around; there’s no way he continues at only a 25 point pace. Hopefully he’ll adjust to the new system and start delivering more results.
Shayna: As disappointed as I am in how Buchnevich was handled to start the season, because I think he had to be put in a position to succeed — even more so with the last two years in mind — I’m also disappointed in how he performed to start the season after an excellent preseason. Having said that, he did turn it around when he was re-inserted into the lineup and into the top-six before his injury. Here’s hoping he can resume that level of play when he’s back!
Otherwise, Smith. I was encouraged by Smith’s preseason and thought his hard work this season may have paid off, and that this coaching staff could be poised to get the best out of him. That didn’t quite happen and some of his costly mistakes rightfully led to him spending a few games in the press box. But like with Buchnevich, he responded and played better after returning to the lineup. Will it last? Well, that depends on when he gets an opportunity. If he wastes away in the press box, I won’t be surprised if he misses a step when he gets his next opportunity. I also think after the Smith-Shattenkirk pair fizzled out, maybe he should have gotten a chance elsewhere (like maybe on Brady Skjei’s right since we all know the potential they have...). Still, it doesn’t excuse it — Smith isn’t a young, inexperienced player. He’s a veteran that already disappointed enough to end up in Hartford even after signing an extension the previous offseason.
Have the Rangers fallen short/met/exceeded your expectations up to this point?
Joe: Exceeded expectations by a wide margin. I still think there’s going to be a selloff shortfall as the team moves toward the trade deadline but I did not expect the Rangers to be in a playoff spot as we approached Thanksgiving.
Tom: Thus far the Rangers are ahead of where I thought they would be in the standings. I think they are showing that they have the potential to be a little better than we though they were, but that will ultimately change once the team makes some decisions on players who may not be in the long term plans.
Mike: I hoped that the Rangers (and Quinn) would give young players an opportunity to develop by playing in significant roles this season, but that isn’t exactly what we’ve seen. With that being said, the Rangers are ahead of where we thought they’d be in the standings — thanks in large part to Henrik Lundqvist and a 4-0 record in the shootout.
Phil: I expected a hard-working team who, thanks to elite goaltending, would hang in games they shouldn’t and generally be a difficult opponent to play against on any given night. I also expected far more losses than wins given the dearth of high-end talent on the roster. The latter has been difficult to square with the former given their run of late. They’re 7-1-1 in their last nine and that hard work appears to be paying significant dividends, at least for the time being. Color me pleasantly surprised.
Kevin: I’m not sure what I expected from the Rangers this year, with so many variables, but I think it was close to what we’re seeing right now. The offense has been fun to watch, the defense has been atrocious, and Hank has been Hank. I think Quinn has been slightly disappointing but I think I’m more forgiving than others because it’s really hard to coach in the NHL and there are learning curves and growing pains to go through. I did not expect as many wins through 20-ish games, and that may hurt the #HopeForHughes train, but this team has shown that they’ll play a solid 60+ every night which is a credit to the coaching staff. All in all, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fun the team has been. At least on offense.
Jack: With Henrik Lundqvist still being among the league’s best goaltenders, there was never any chance of the Rangers competing for the #1 pick. Add in a handful of strong performances from forwards like Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Filip Chytil, and the Rangers were destined to be closer to a playoff spot than the bottom of the league, even with their abominable defense corps. The team is interesting in that they grade out significantly different across the three most notable metrics used in the hockey world today. David Quinn’s group is a dreadful 27th in CF%, a middling 11th in xGF% and 5th in Manny Elk’s Team K rating. I’m skeptical they’ll maintain the playoff spot they’re currently in, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they hung around the periphery of the playoffs well into March.
Adam: I came into the season with zero expectations. It’s a rebuilding team with a number of rookie coaches. That being said, fans should be pleasantly surprised with the team’s performance so far. I’m not convinced that the standings reflect their actual ability, but they are playing a much more structured game than they had the last few seasons. Unfortunately, the NHL is structured in a way that winning is counterproductive for the Rangers’ long-term goals.
Scott: I think the Rangers have exceeded expectations. One only has to look at how the Sabres rebuild went to see just how bad the Rangers could have potentially been this season. There was a strong possibility that the Rangers were going to get pushed around every night and go into games expecting the loss. However, the Rangers approached the rebuild with a great mindset of playing competitive and fun hockey while still losing and learning from their mistakes. They’ve exceed expectations though as they’ve actually been winning a lot of games! While the defense is still in poor shape, the offense has been excellent. I don’t expect them to keep winning at such a high rate but they’ve definitely exceeded my expectations with the quality of their play, as I was bracing for a Sabres-like performance out of a team that was very clearly in a rebuilding phase.
Shayna: I didn’t have too many expectations for the Rangers this season. Rebuilding with a roster void of some of last season’s veterans, plus a mostly new-look coaching staff usually means a long adjustment period, so that part wasn’t unexpected. Neither was Henrik Lundqvist keeping them in most games. But the end of October and November so far has exceeded my expectations to an extent. I’m surprised at how much they’ve been winning and accumulating points, I’m not surprised at their quality of play throughout this stretch. There’s unsurprisingly a lot of work to be done at 5-on-5, and if they want to sustain their winning, improvements and adjustments will have to come. If not, it won’t be surprising if they go on a path similar to the 2017-18 Rangers who also went on a winning streak from the end of October to early/mid-November.
How is that differed from what you expected before the season started?
Tom: I expected the team to be closer to the bottom of the standings, and at least one major piece would have been trade by now. I also expected one of Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil to have more of a prominent role from the start, although you could say Chytil is getting that opportunity right now.
Mike: It’s not surprising that Lundqvist has continued to be excellent because, honestly, we could turn a profit by bottling his urine. I did not expect Gorton to acquire Adam McQuaid and Quinn to turn a blind eye to the play of Marc Staal. I also did not expect the new head coach to struggle to identify what he had in players like DeAngelo, Buchnevich, and Chytil.
Phil: The only difference to this point is their actual place in the standings. Game-to-game, shift-to-shift, much of what we’re seeing I expected to. That includes everything whistle to whistle, and even the nastier, more physical stuff between them.
Kevin: The only difference is that I didn’t think it would take this long to get Chytil into the top six, but he’s there now and looks incredible. So all in all, I think the Rangers have looked more or less how I expected them to look.
Jack: Not much. Unless a team is outright terrible, it’s nearly impossible to be far outside the playoff picture at this juncture of the season. The Rangers were never going to be outright terrible, and one winning streak has propelled them into the middle of the pack. In spite of being tied in points for 1st in the division, the team is 7th in the East as of now.
Scott: I expected the Rangers to be a lot worse and a lot closer to the bottom of the standings than they currently are. It’s a long season but the Rangers are looking more competitive than I thought they’d be.
Shayna: What Mike said. I know so many will look at the low ice times and healthy scratches as what turned a player’s season around, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I think that those times out may have provided players with more chances to work with the coaches and gain some direction, but I still don’t completely agree with that tactic — especially not with Buchnevich, DeAngelo, and Chytil. I think we could have seen results sooner had they been handled differently, and handled sooner (definitely with Chytil).
What also differed from my expectations was how much fun this team would be. After the coaching change last season, I expected a different environment from the end of last season, but I didn’t anticipate it being this much fun. It’s contagious. The kids are making it fun, veterans like Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are making it fun, and so is Lundqvist. No matter the results, if the Rangers can continue that while they grow, I don’t think fans should be too upset.
What are your expectations moving forward?
Tom: Going forward, the Rangers will still be a seller at the deadline, and that should result in the team having a major drop off in the standings and a subsequent improvement in eventual draft positioning.
Mike: I expect we’ll see the Rangers slip in the standings soon. The underlying numbers are not good, which is not at all surprising considering what we’ve seen from the defense thus far. Still, it’s hard to say what the Rangers are going to be because so much is tied to what happens with Zuccarello, Hayes, and the other players who could be moved before the deadline. My gut tells me this team should and will sell off its assets and focus on the big picture, but the Spooner trade has raised even more questions.
Phil: I still expect the team to miss the playoffs, but if this pace continues, even at a reduced rate, it may not be by much. That hurts their shot at a top-five draft pick, but speaks volumes about both David Quinn’s influence on his team as well as the value of the work ethic he demands of them.
Kevin: More losing. The Rangers are hemorrhaging shots and losing the shot share battle pretty handly over the last few weeks, but they are enjoying a nice over correction in their sh% so as that comes back around, expect more losses to pile up. The Rangers are not as good as their record or standing appear, and I think those losses will go a long way in the Great Selloff 2: Electric Boogaloo in March.
Jack: There’s currently a six point gap between 1st and 8th place in the Metropolitan Division. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place team’s from last year’s divisional standings are currently 7th, 8th, and 6th. There’s still plenty of team for teams to catch up and I think the wheat will separate from chaff soon enough. I don’t think the trade deadline will see a mass exodus of players like last year, so the team won’t be as bad down the stretch. The Rangers will finish somewhere around 20th leaguewide, and pick somewhere around 10th in June.
Scott: Expectations for me are still mostly the same, as I don’t expect the Rangers to keep winning so many games. I still think it’s best for them to lose this season and get a top draft pick to prepare the best they can for the future. Teams like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and L.A. have shown that you need those game-changing top talents to seriously challenge for a Cup.
Shayna: I don’t think the rest of the season is going to be completely dreadful — I mean, last season set the bar pretty low, right? Play wise or environment wise.
I’m not expecting them to continue to earn points at this rate mainly because of their underlying numbers, but I think they can still be somewhat competitive — for now. The Rangers may be getting quality chances, but aren’t generating enough offense in general, and that’s what they need to win long-term. I expect Henrik Lundqvist to continue to be one of, if not the biggest difference makers each night. But unless the Rangers somehow are outstanding the rest of the season, they’ll still be sellers at the deadline, and players like Vlad Namestnikov, Adam McQuaid, and at least one of Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello will be on their way out.