The Rangers’ deadline exodus created roster spots for new and/or young faces to fill, particularly on the blue line. The holes left by the departures of Rick Nash and J.T. Miller were filled by Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov, but the Michael Grabner trade did not bring an NHL-ready asset back to New York. In other words, there has been at least one roster spot available in the bottom six since deadline day and the Rangers have been squandering it.
Now that Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson are up with the big club, veteran forwards David Desharnais, Paul Carey, and Peter Holland have all been healthy scratches. Carey was a post-deadline fixture until the pair of 2017 first-rounders were recalled. And, to the vexation of the masses, Cody McLeod has been a mainstay since the Rangers claimed him on waivers in late January. The former Predator has recently been skating on the fourth line with Namestnikov and Pavel Buchnevich.
McLeod, Desharnais, and Carey are all unrestricted free agents on July 1. Holland will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019.
The Rangers have already been eliminated from the playoffs and now have just five games left before the close of the regular season. This is garbage time; time to evaluate new faces like Spooner and Namestnikov and evaluate young players like Neal Pionk and John Gilmour against NHL competition. McLeod’s continued presence feels like a waste of both ice time and opportunity when there are still kids in the AHL who should get another look.
One of those youngsters is Boo Nieves.
Nieves hasn’t pulled a Rangers sweater over his head and shoulder pads since January 14. Nieves played in 28 games with the Rangers this season, including the 2018 Winter Classic, after Gorton brought him up in late October. It was a big step up from the one game of NHL experience the rookie forward enjoyed in 2016-17.
Nieves looked good during his time with the big club, playing almost exclusively on the fourth line. He took the body and used his big frame well, he made smart decisions with the puck, and he played meat and potatoes hockey with an occasional garnish of creativity in the offensive zone. The former second round pick scored one goal and picked up helpers on eight others in his 28 games of NHL action.
Nieves’ -1.42 Rel CF percentage in just over 263 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey overshadows the rates put up by Desharnais (-4.18), Carey (-5.59), McLeod (-9.47), and Holland (-7.95). Furthermore, Nieves was on the ice for 13 Rangers goals for and eight goals against (5-on-5) during a time of the year when the Blueshirts were struggling to generate offense. For some context: Carey has been on the ice for 15 goals for and 29 goals against (5-on-5) in 57 games this year.
On January 15 the Rangers sent Nieves back down to Hartford and called up Holland after the team went 1-4-0 after the Winter Classic. Why? The Rangers were playing poorly and they were hurting for offense — scoring 15 goals in a span of nine games — and the hope was that Holland might provide a spark. He didn’t. Holland has picked up four points in 21 games with the Rangers this year. Meanwhile Nieves has put up 14 points in his last 28 games with the depleted Wolf Pack.
“He’s a big body, real strong one-on-one and a real solid skater,” Alain Vigneault said of Nieves earlier this season. “There’s no doubt Boo is improving with every game. Every minute he plays, he gets more experience, and he’s gonna get better.”
So, why isn’t he up with the Rangers skating on the fourth line and getting more NHL experience?
One factor is McLeod’s perceived value as a deterrent in the lineup, another is the question of whether or not 10 minutes of NHL ice time is more valuable to Nieves than the bigger role he’s currently playing for the Wolf Pack. There’s also something to be said about further depleting a Hartford roster that currently resembles a swaying, trembling Jenga tower; currently being held together with ECHL call-ups and Vinni Lettieri.
With just five games left on the calendar there’s very little chance that Nieves steps on NHL ice again this season. The good news is that the former Michigan Wolverine found a way to make an impression with his first extended taste of NHL hockey this year. Even with the Rangers’ current center depth, Nieves still has a great chance to make the team out of training camp in the fall.