The selection of Lias Andersson with the seventh overall pick of the 2017 draft turned some heads and drew intrigue at the time, but I never thought that 63 games into his NHL career that there would be speculation about trading him. But that’s the “dilemma” we find ourselves in.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post dropped a story after the Rangers’ 6-5 loss vs. the Florida Panthers, a contest in which Andersson skated 7:36 or just the third-fewest minutes of his 2019-20 season. Brooks’ overall premise is that Andersson finds himself below Mika Zibanejad, Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome, and Brett Howden on the depth chart, and at some point something is clearly going to give.
But to that I continue to scratch my head on why that something is Andersson alone. I really don’t want to continue to beat a dead horse as it gets boring and repetitive. I’d like to feel that I’ve been consistent in my overarching thesis of these “build” years being about discovery and development, with the franchise ultimately finding out what they have in their players.
Doing so allows the team to start pinning names to what in my head is a cork board with slots for a 2020-21 and beyond roster, ie: Mika Zibanejad in the No. 1 center slot, Artemiy Panarin in the No. 1 left wing spot, and potentially someone like K’Andre Miller in the defense pool without being placed on a pair.
This is something that’s currently happening with Alexandar Georgiev being given additional playing time this season, and I’d assume at some point Igor Shesterkin will be in the mix. You could say the same has been true of the young defense with Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, and Libor Hajek being given opportunities, and Tony DeAngelo being given more of a opportunity than last year.
Which brings us to Andersson, a player we don’t really know a lot about, and someone the Rangers should be learning more about before thinking about trading him. Since being drafted, Andersson has appeared in 22 games with Frolunda, 63 games with the Rangers, and 61 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack. This is a small sample, and one that has seen Andersson move between each level, at different ages.
When it comes to a potential trade, if that were to happen, so be it. You don’t hit on every pick, and sometimes things don’t work out. But the Rangers’ have barely given him a chance, and when those who cover the team on a day-to-day basis broach the question about his ice time, the answer they’ve receive thus far of “He (Lias) needs to earn more ice time” is an incomplete and inadequate one.
This is the case because when your most common linemates are a defender who is being used as a winger (Brendan Smith), a journeyman energy player whose main role is fighting (Micheal Haley), Greg McKegg, and Brendan Lemieux, it is unclear on what Andersson is being expected to do to earn more ice time when he’s already being given little opportunity to do so in the first place.
I would say most fans are reasonable in the sense that when Zibanejad left the lineup via injury they didn’t expect him to get a shot to run the first line. But I think there was an expectation that this would create an opportunity for Andersson to play more. Instead he’s averaged 9:29 in five games, one game he was a healthy scratch, which is 0:25 less than his per game average. Strome on the other hand has averaged 19:54 a game (up from 17:09), Chytil has averaged 17:14 a game, and Howden has skated 16:09 (up from 15:29).
Of these players Howden is the only “competition” as he’s the other bottom-six center in the mix. And he’s been given the opportunity that fans have been asking for Andersson to get, and he’s mostly squandered it. This isn’t just a snap judgement, but a continuation of how Howden played, and more so ended last season. Howden appeared in 66 games during the 2018-19 season, and logged 774 minutes 5v5. He finished the season with six goals, 17 assists, and 23 points and that was met with appreciation from the coaching staff for a 20-year-old making the jump pretty much directly from the WHL.
But the results were surprising given the underlying metrics, which included a GF% of 42.16, a CF% of 41.62, and an xGF% of 41.91. The numbers being bad aren’t shocking considering he was a rookie on a team who collectively posted some poor underlying metrics, but they were bad compared to the rest of his team. His relative metrics in each category include -0.44 in GF%, -9.48 in CF%, and -0.58 in xGF%, and the same has been true so far this season.
This year he’s posted a line that includes a GF% of 34.16, a CF% of 39.23, and an xGF% of 38.14. His rates relative to the team read -0.81 in GF%, -7.12 in CF%, and -0.40 in xGF%. Obviously this is a 15 game sample, but collectively over 81 games Howden has posted some pretty bad numbers, so it isn’t exactly clear what he’s done to earn his ice time.
Howden is still very young, and a player who could be a help to the team going forward, but despite getting reps with quality players whether it be Kaapo Kakko, Pavel Buchnevich, Jesper Fast, or Chris Kreider, he’s not generating offense or driving possession. And that is fine of some who turned 21 in March.
In terms of box score stats, Howden has four points, although two came in one game vs. the Sabres and he’s got one point in the six games Zibanejad has missed. This is still more than Andersson’s one point, but as I’ve pointed out above there’s more to the story. Back to Howden, if faceoffs are something that matter to the Rangers, he’s won 37 of 90 draws taken (41%) in the same span.
Now look, I fully understand the NHL is more than numbers like Corsi, expected goals, and so on, but when you have two players of similar age posting similar results, being deployed differently but the one who has had the more favorable usage continually getting rewarded; something doesn’t add up. Is it because Howden at 6’3”, 197 pounds is a “chiseled-edge specimen?”
Andersson’s numbers aren’t great, but they are a lot better than Howden’s in context. For example, in 42 games last season Andersson had an actual GF% of 29.81, but an xGF% of 41.93 while posting a CF% of 41.53. This season he’s skated 20 games and while his actual GF% is 20, his xGF% is 41.41 while posting a CF% of 39.87 which is just off last year’s.
In terms of relative numbers, last year he was a -1.31 in GF%, this year he is a -2.23. In CF% he was a -6.22, this year he’s a -3.96, and in xGF% he was a -0.43, and thus far he’s a -0.13. The TL/DR is that it is hard to fault what he’s accomplished given the circumstances, especially when you view it alongside what Howden’s done.
In terms of going forward, the Rangers have options, and more so with Howden than Andersson. They have already done the AHL up and down dance with Andersson, and another assignment this season could make sense, if they gave him a shot on the third line first. If at that point he failed to produce more and deserve his ice time, it would offer him a chance to truly reset himself, similar to what happened with 2017 draft mate Filip Chytil. Andersson just turned 21 in October, and the only reason why I’d be against that move first is that I feel it would send the wrong message, but at this point anything that gives him more time on ice is a good thing.
I truly believe that Howden would benefit from spending some time in the AHL, and it would give him the opportunity to play first line minutes with the Pack and work on his overall game as a player. I say this as opposed to going right to the fourth line, because it would do as much good for him at this point as it is Andersson.
Until Zibanejad comes back I’d call up Boo Nieves to play as the fourth line center, and when Zibanejad comes back Strome could move to wing which pushes Fast back down in the lineup. Then it becomes a competition of Nieves, McKegg, and Haley for who is the best 12th/13th forward of the group.
At the beginning of this story I said it was puzzling that this is the “dilemma” the Rangers are in, and I still don’t know how we got here. Andersson was named the winner of Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award in 2018 as the top rookie in camp, but was assigned to Hartford anyway. He appeared in four preseason games this year and scored two goals, and many were impressed on the shape he came to camp into. But despite that he’s seemingly been pigeonholed into a role, and no real reason has been given.
Ultimately I realize a Lias Andersson trade might happen, but I would want it to be for the right reasons, and after the team exhausted all options. We talk about asset management a lot, and I have a hard time believing such an exercise who bring his trade value any lower than it is now.
To date Andersson remains in a purgatory of sorts being asked to do “something” while being given little opportunity to do so. I don’t know what that something is, and if we did maybe there’d be some understanding. The quickest way to stop the conversation and questions about his ice time would to simply give him a trial to prove himself, and if at that point he fails; so be it. But until they do so it will be hard to take the commentary of Andersson needing to earn more ice time seriously as long as other players on the roster put up similar results.