Amidst seasons like this one, and particularly when the team has just one win in its last seven games, the search for meaningful, positive storylines becomes somewhat of an excavation.
Boo Nieves is one of a few players who can feel content with his performance in recent games. Nieves has participated in 13 contests since he was called up on December 15th, and has produced two goals and three assists. This is not earth-shattering production by any means, but it’s more than adequate for a fourth liner in today’s NHL.
The underlying numbers are a mixed bag. A 38.3% Corsi means that the Rangers are getting absolutely buried in shot attempts when Nieves is on the ice. However, it’s hard to distinguish how much of that is Nieves’ fault, exactly. For one, the Rangers on the whole have struggled to carry play, and Nieves has been stuck with numerous anchors; Ryan Strome, Cody McLeod, and Lias Andersson.
Let’s go back to his production, though. Here is his goal against St. Louis as well as his two most recent assists.
These points were all actually pretty sloppy, in a way. He’s not sniping past Jake Allen off the crossbar, and the two assists weren’t threaded passes but rather pucks crudely finding a way onto a stick in prime scoring position. But that’s almost the point. Nieves is not a player with silky smooth hands and a deadly shot, but what he does possess is incredible speed, size, and reach. And so he has the ability to create offense in this manner. Nieves aggressively takes on defenders and in the process creates chaos. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t have to be.
Per Evolving Hockey, Nieves ranks third among all Rangers in GAR/60 (Goals Above Replacement Level per 60 minutes). That of course says more about the Rangers than it does Nieves, but the more immediate point is that he has justified his NHL spot so far.
Yet some version of this Nieves story has been written over-and-over. He will put together a string of games where it appears that he’s finally turning a corner only to regress back to a more complacent, ineffective game. Here is what I wrote about Nieves in January of 2015, in midst of his junior season at Michigan.
To an extent, Nieves had some awful puck luck last season, but even when accounting for that I viewed him with a bit of skepticism going into this season. Nine months later and Nieves looks like a brand new player. He plays a more complete game, and his confidence is much higher. The two obviously contribute to each other.
But here is what I wrote six months later.
There were games last season where Nieves was Michigan’s best forward. Which is certainly progress. I’m still waiting for him to hit that next level, though... The tools are there, and he just needs to get it all together for every game instead of just some games.
And here is what I wrote in the summer of 2016, following a lukewarm senior NCAA season but a dynamic cameo in Hartford.
Where he really showed his best work was in Hartford, after his college career ended. Nieves was given a chance to play top offensive minutes with the Wolf Pack, who were badly needed an offensive injection. He provided it, scoring twice and adding three assists in eight games and generally being one of the team’s best forwards during the spell. Usually players are more timid when first turning pro. Nieves bizarrely did the opposite, consistently engaging with the puck on his stick in a way that he never felt comfortable doing in his four years at Michigan... He just didn’t show a confidence in his abilities on a consistent basis at Michigan for whatever reason. Was his Hartford stint a flash in the pan or a sign of Nieves challenging himself to reach a higher gear?
Here was a prescient summary I wrote following the 2016-2017 season.
This is, historically, the part where I mention all of Nieves’ tools. He’s a great skater. He has good size (6’3, 219 lbs), decent puck poise, manages the boards well, and has good positional awareness in the defensive zone. Some things definitely did go right for him last season, and a lot of the bad was no fault of his own. In evaluating his tools as individual parts, he has almost everything a coach wants in a depth center. But this is now the sixth-straight summer I am sitting here trying to convince myself that “next year” is the one in which Nieves finally turns those raw tools into a finished, consistent product. At this point It’s fair to question if we’re Waiting for Godot.
One of the great 21st century philosophers once said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me......... you can’t get fooled again.”
So it is difficult to get particularly enthusiastic about Nieves’ recent stretch of games. That he is showing this kind of ability is a nice starting point, but it’s not something we haven’t seen before. The question that has chronically plagued him ever since the Rangers drafted him six-and-a-half years ago is at the forefront today; can Nieves move beyond isolated moments of aptitude and become a consistent contributor?
What’s certain is that Nieves has earned the opportunity to stay in the lineup. For one, he’s played well (at least, relative to some of his teammates). David Quinn should consider him one of the 12 forwards who gives the team the best chance to win on a given night. At least right now.
Maybe more importantly, though, is the fact that now is really the last chance for the Rangers to see if Nieves can be a part of the team going forward. He turns 25 in a week and will become a Group VI Unrestricted Free Agent at the end of the summer. Thus, both the realities of developmental curves as well as the Collective Bargaining agreement dictate that it’s now or never for Nieves and the Rangers. The team has 37 games to see if Nieves can finally find that consistency and become a part of the team’s future.
If Nieves proves to the Rangers that they can depend on him to be a cheap, reliable fourth line - or even 13th - forward for the next one-to-three seasons, then it’s one fewer hole among many that the Rangers will have to address this summer. Maybe he could even turn into a trade asset down the line. This may not all be likely, and even in the best case scenario, it would hardly be a turning point for the rebuild. Nonetheless, in a season that has provided, and will continue to provide, little existential purpose, it behooves the Rangers to see if Nieves can once and for all curate his raw abilities into an NHL career of any kind.