Less than 18 months ago, Brett Howden was one of four Tampa Bay Lightning prospects representing the Canadian national team at the 2018 World Junior Championships. After helping lead his country to gold in Buffalo, Howden returned to WHL Moose Jaw, where he spent his final two months as a member of the Lightning organization.
In their quest for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup, the Lightning deemed Howden expendable and included him in the package of future assets they sent to New York in exchange for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller. Howden came to training camp as a dark horse to earn time in New York’s bottom six, and managed to beat out Lias Andersson for a spot on the opening night roster.
Although he spent a stint on the injured reserve that cost him 16 games, Howden spent the entirety of his first professional season in the NHL. For someone who only turned 21 five weeks ago, that’s a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself. As for his individual statistics, they break down as follows:
Boxcar Stats: 66 GP, 6 G, 17 A, 14 PIM, 48.42 FO%, 74 SOG, 14:56 TOI/GP, +2 Penalty Differential
“Analytical” Metrics: 1.63 P/60, 1.32 P1/60, -4.29 Relative CF%, -2.95 Relative GF%, -5.15 Relative xGF%, 100.61 On-Ice PDO, -8.59 GAR/82
With Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes anchoring the top six center spots for the majority of the season, and Ryan Strome replacing the latter upon his trade to the Winnipeg Jets, Howden spent his rookie season manning the middle of New York’s bottom six forwards. Jockeying for ice time at center with the likes of Andersson, Cristoval Nieves, and Filip Chytil throughout the year meant Howden was just as likely to man an offensively capable 3rd line as he was a 4th line that featured a rotating cast of warm bodies.
The constant juggling within the bottom six meant Howden wasn’t able to establish any sort of chemistry with his linemates. Howden’s most frequent linemates, Jimmy Vesey and Vladislav Namestnikov, barely cracked 90:00 together at 5-on-5, and that trio was the only one featuring Howden that skated more than 75:00 together. He was also featured sparingly on special teams, coming in at 10th on the team in powerplay minutes, as well as 7th in shorthanded time on ice.
Howden’s splits tell the typical tale of a rookie skater hitting a wall at a certain point, the “highlight” of which included a three month span without recording a single goal. The first two months of the season saw Howden post a 4-9-13 stat line and skate in all 25 of the Rangers’ games. From December on, the rookie pivot had a season to forget. With an MCL sprain keeping him out for the entirety of February, Howden posted an abysmal 2-8-10 line in the 41 games he was healthy for, with 70% of his scoring coming off the heels of his injury in March.
When you adjust Howden’s scoring numbers to factor in ice time, you can find some positives to take away from his rookie campaign. His 1.63 P/60 rank sixth out of the 17 forwards who skated 200+ 5-on-5 minutes on Broadway this season. The 1.32 primary P/60 he scored rank seventh, and both numbers outpace some of the team’s bright young stars like Pavel Buchnevich and Filip Chytil. Considering the linemates Howden spent a majority of the season tethered to, ranking in the upper-middle of forwards in terms of point production is something to build on moving forward.
Unfortunately, not everything went right for Howden during his first professional season. While his point production for the season as a whole was solid, it’s hard to ignore the 35 game goalless drought he suffered through. After scoring his 4th goal of the young season on November 12th, Howden wouldn’t find the back of the net again until March 11th, and only recorded six assists during that time span. Rookie walls are one thing, but Howden’s dry spell lasted nearly half of the season, and over half of the games he skated in on the year.
Howden’s shot and scoring chance metrics were also among the dregs of the team, as he finished 13th out of 17th in relative Corsi For%, and 15th in relative Expected Goals%, with only Ryan Spooner and Cody McLeod posting worse numbers before being traded away. Being saddled with sub-par linemates for a majority of the season played a role in Howden’s poor differentials, but good players tend to shine through the mud surrounding them even on bad teams. Once his scoring dried up, Howden was as unremarkable as the rest of the Blueshirts’ bottom six.
Personal Grade: D+
Masthead Average: C+ (1 B, 3 B-’s, 1 C+, 4 C’s, 1 C-, 1 D+)
There’s a long list of quality NHL players that became full time players after their age 20 season, so the fact that Howden broke camp with the Rangers and remained on Broadway throughout the season is a major positive. Whether a stint in the AHL would’ve been beneficial for him is up for debate, but Howden’s first professional season wasn’t all bad.
In spite of the hot and cold spells that defined his season, Howden provided secondary scoring that the Rangers will need out of their depth players down the line if they want to become a long-term contender. His status as part of the return for Ryan McDonagh will always mean sky-high expectations for some, but Howden has been projected as a capable middle six center if his development stays on track.
There’s room for improvement heading into his sophomore season, and the influx of talent coming to New York should paint a more accurate picture of Howden’s abilities next season. With Vitali Kravtsov’s arrival in North America already confirmed, as well as the possible additions of Kaapo Kakko and Artemi Panarin, the Rangers will have a level of talent flanking their centers that’s been missing since the 2014 stretch run.
If Howden can improve on his deficincies from his rookie campaign, Jeff Gorton may have found himself his third line center of the future.
2019 Report Cards: Ryan Strome / Filip Chytil / Brendan Lemieux / Tony DeAngelo / Chris Kreider / Pavel Buchnevich / Neal Pionk / Cristoval Nieves / Kevin Shattenkirk / Marc Staal / Jimmy Vesey / Brady Skjei / Connor Brickley / Vladislav Namestnikov