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Mishandled or Not, Andersson Must Now Earn NHL Return

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There will be no more excuses to lean on if Lias Andersson can’t produce in the AHL and work his way back to the NHL this season.

Florida Panthers v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

If one wants to hold the Rangers responsible for the way Lias Andersson’s NHL career has (not) unfolded since he was selected seventh overall two-and-a-half years ago, then there’s a laundry list of credible arguments to support such an accusation.

One could blame the organization for inviting, if not directly placing, an undue amount of pressure on Andersson as the face of a “rebuild on the fly.” Not only as a long-term piece, but specifically one whom they felt was almost immediately ready to make an impact in the NHL as an 18-year-old.

One could blame the team for meddling unnecessarily when they pulled Andersson away from the Swedish Hockey League in 2018, where he was thriving in a top-six role for Frolunda and produced 14 points through 22 games. He departed a healthy, positive environment and joined a Hartford Wolf Pack team that was struggling mightily and was becoming a developmental black hole. And one could blame the Rangers for not learning any lessons and maintaining the status quo in Hartford for the 2018-2019 season, where Andersson started the campaign.

One could blame management for failing to put together a roster with halfway decent forward depth. A combination of Greg McKegg, Brendan Smith, and Micheal Haley is drastically below the standard for even a mediocre NHL fourth line. Flanking an accomplished, veteran center like Brian Boyle with those players would be cruel and unusual punishment. For an impressionable rookie who is trying to catch his bearings? It’s beyond calamitous.

Finally, the coaching staff has a target the size of Jupiter on its metaphorical back for the lack of opportunities afforded to Andersson. This is a team at the bottom of the NHL standings and which ranks among the worst teams of the last decade by most shot metrics. There have been numerous games in which the team has been overwhelmed and blown out. There was an embarrassing 8-1 deficit against Tampa Bay with a roster so depleted that Head Coach David Quinn admitted he couldn’t afford to bench players even if he wanted to. The search for answers has been extensive and, at times, desperate. At one point Brendan Lemieux and Jesper Fast shared first-line duties. In such circumstances over the course of 18 games — with so much liberal, radical shuffling of the lines — it’s hard to fathom how the coaches didn’t even accidentally allow Andersson to get a single period in a top-nine role. As if a floundering team had anything to lose in trying that for a couple of shifts after it unsuccessfully tried practically everything else.

Each of these points of contention is individually up for debate, but the inescapable conclusion is that the Rangers are in some manner(s) culpable for Andersson’s inability to carve out a full-time NHL spot.

Yet eventually Andersson needs to control his own fate and earn an NHL career. Regardless of whatever mistakes the Rangers have made along the way, Andersson hasn’t made the best case for himself. Though his AHL numbers the past two seasons look pretty good on the surface, the illusion falls apart with a deeper investigation. He has just 14 primary points (goals plus primary assists) at even strength in 61 games for Hartford.

And while he hasn’t exactly received the best linemates, there’s still something to be said for the fact that Andersson has just one point this season — a secondary assist on a weak goal against Boston — and only nine points in 66 career NHL games. The argument for moving Andersson off of the fourth line was solely philosophical; at no moment has his play actively warranted a reward. Ultimately, all issues with how the organization has handled this are auxiliary to a bigger question: is Andersson actually good enough to be an NHL player?

The misgivings of the past can’t be changed, and they frankly don’t matter right now. Andersson will be a 21-year-old who is joining a Wolf Pack team that sits atop the AHL league standings and has just one regulation loss in 17 games. There is a progressive, multi-faceted coaching staff in place. He’ll be receiving top-six minutes alongside really good AHL players.

With all of the variables in his favor, this will be a referendum on Andersson’s outlook as a professional hockey player. He needs to be a top player for Hartford and there will be no way rationalize anything less. The Rangers may have sinned in their handling of Andersson in the past, but now there are no excuses. If Andersson can’t work his way back to the NHL in the coming weeks then the Swede will have nothing and nobody to blame except himself.