It was not the best year for New York Rangers rookie forwards. In 2016-17 we had Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich; in 2017-18 we had Boo Nieves and Vinni Lettieri.
Vinni Lettieri’s rookie season started off with a bang. The undrafted college free agent signing scored a goal and put three shots on net in his NHL debut on Dec. 29, 2017. Unfortunately for the Rangers, Lettieri was unable to bury another chance despite quickly developing a reputation as a shoot-first winger.
“In Vinni’s case, he’s a guy that from my understanding and what I remember from him in camp and talking to the coaches in Hartford, he’s a shoot-first mentality,” Alain Vigneault told Sean Hartnett back in December. “Since we don’t have any right-handed shots on that second power play unit, it’s something I feel that we need to see, and we’ll see what he can do.”
Lettieri played like he wanted to get noticed. He averaged 2.58 shots per game with the Wolf Pack and put 28 shots on net with the Rangers in 19 games. He also led the Wolf Pack in goals (23) despite playing just 55 games in the AHL this year.
One number that jumps out from Lettieri’s two months with the Rangers is his 5-on-5 goal differential; he was on the ice for four goals for and 12 goals against. His relative Corsi in that time was -4.63 percent. Needless to say, we can comfortably slide those numbers into a folder labeled “this is bad.” With all of that being said, it’s important to remember that we’re working with a small sample size and that Lettieri’s most frequent linemates were David Desharnais and Paul Carey.
One has to wonder if we’d feel a little differently about Lettieri’s rookie year if he didn’t fight Brendan Smith at a Wolf Pack practice in March. It’s hard to overstate just how valuable he was to Keith McCambridge’s Hartford roster. The former Golden Gopher’s game definitely needs a lot of polish, but he’s already proven that he can make an impact at the AHL level.
No Rangers rookie forward appeared in more games this year than Boo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was given a fair shake.
“Boo, we feel has a lot of upside,” Vigneault said back in January. “His size and his skating ability. But there are a couple areas that we need him to be a little more consistent. If he’s going to play in the NHL on a regular basis, it’s going to be as a dependable third- or fourth-liner.”
Nieves failed to gain a foothold on the Rangers roster despite the team’s pressing need for center depth. When the former second round pick was in Vigneault’s lineup, he was playing solid two-way hockey. Nieves posted a -1.42 Rel CF% in his 28 games with the Rangers and he put up nine points with an average ice time of 10:12.
Nieves’ numbers in Hartford this year more or less lined up with his production last season. But there’s a lot more to the story than him putting up 21 points in 40 AHL games. Nieves was arguably the Wolf Pack’s best two-way forward and was crucial to the team’s penalty kill. Can you imagine how much more chaotic things would have been in Hartford if McCambridge didn’t have Nieves at his disposal?
The New York native is a pending RFA who will be 24 going on 25 next season.
The bottom line is that we simply didn’t see enough of Lettieri or Nieves in the NHL to grade them. Both rookies will be looking to make some noise at training camp in the fall, assuming that the Rangers re-sign Nieves. If they don’t make the cut for the Rangers 2018-19 roster, expect Nieves and Lettieri to be key cogs in the machine for McCambridge in Hartford.
2018 Report Cards: Marc Staal / Mats Zuccarello / Ryan Spooner / Rob O’Gara / Jimmy Vesey / Brendan Smith / Vladislav Namestnikov / Brady Skjei / Steven Kampfer / Jesper Fast/ Alexandar Georgiev / Pavel Buchnevich / Ondrej Pavelec / Kevin Hayes / Mika Zibanejad / Alain Vigneault / John Gilmour / Ryan McDonagh / Neal Pionk / Ryan Sproul / Kevin Shattenkirk / Chris Kreider / Jeff Gorton I / Jeff Gorton II / Tony DeAngelo / David Desharnais / Assistant Coaches