Jesper Fast entered his seventh season with the New York Rangers with expectations for him to continue his role as a middle-six winger with an admirable amount of intangibles. He was expected to kill penalties, lead by example with his work ethic, and contribute a modest amount of depth scoring. However, this was a contract year for Fast, who started the year at 27, so many analyzed his game with more scrutiny than in years past.
Due to time missed with injury, Fast’s production dipped down to eight goals and 12 assists in 66 games in 2018-19. If healthy, a reasonable expectation for production for the Swedish winger heading into the season would have been in the neighborhood of 32 points. Prior to 2019-20, Fast’s biggest offensive season was a 13-goal performance in 2017-18. But the scoresheet has never been where he’s made his biggest impact.
In terms of intangibles, it’s safe to say that Fast delivered in a big way.
He won the Rangers’ Players’ Player Award for a fifth consecutive season and finished the season second among forwards in SH TOI/GP (2:21) behind only Mika Zibanejad. Fast was third on the team in hits (125) and second on the team in hits taken (106) — that’s a lot of hits taken for a guy who was rarely tasked with carrying the puck at even strength. But Fast is the epitome of a guy who take a hit to make a play, which is why he’s had an “A” stitched over his breast for a few years.
The big story this year for Fast was the line he found himself playing on at even strength. After some initial juggling, Fast landed on a line with Artemiy Panarin and Ryan Strome who were far and away his most frequent linemates at 5-on-5 — 531:55 and 540:43, respectively. Playing with Panarin. A regular role in the top-six resulted in Fast finishing with a career-high average ice time of 16:36 and he was on pace to set a new personal best in goals in a season before the pandemic shut things down. Man, playing with Panarin looks like a lot of fun.
So, what did Fast bring to the Rangers’ highest-scoring line at 5-on-5? More than you might think.
As a duo, Panarin and Strome had a higher CF% (51.39) than they had with him (50.29), but they were lackluster defensively without Fast. Without Fast, Panarin and Strome had a 2.72 xGA/60 and a 2.76 xGF/60; with him the trio had a 1.91 xGA/60 and 2.97 xGF/60. So Fast definitely brought something to the table beyond retrieving pucks for Panarin and playing sound hockey in the neutral and defensive zones. It’s no surprise that Strome finished with a lot more points than Fast due to his playmaking ability, position, and power play ice time, but there was a lot to like about Fast’s underlying numbers.
In addition to scoring 12 goals and picking up 17 assists, Fast finished the regular season with a +2 penalty differential. He also had the second-lowest xGA/60 on the penalty kill among Rangers’ forwards who averaged at least 1:00 SH TOI/GP. The lowest? Lias Andersson (in 17 GP). Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
There’s a case to be made that Fast should have produced more at 5-on-5 than he did because of his linemates. After all, he was sixth among Rangers’ forwards in P/60 (1.65), ahead of Filip Chytil (1.47) and Brett Howden (1.06). One would expect Fast to set personal bests in production even without a role on the power play, but that is not the case. His numbers did not benefit in the same way that Strome’s did. In fact, he had a higher P/GP in 2017-18 when he had 33 points in 71 games.
Banter Consensus: B
Full disclosure: I graded Fast higher than the rest of Banter’s staff. Was Fast a great top-six forward? Hardly, but that isn’t what he is or what he was expected to be. In my opinion, he did reasonably well playing in a role that didn’t necessarily suit his game while doing all of those things that make fans, coaches, and teammates love him.
As a result of decisions made by the general manager and the coaching staff, Fast was asked to punch above his weight as a middle-six forward with a $1.85 million cap hit playing on the top line — or the 1A/1B line or whatever you want to call it. Could he have scored more? Absolutely, but that wasn’t even necessarily his role on the Panarin line. He was there to help balance the equation and likely to make up for the defensive inadequacies of his linemates. In that respect, he did his job and did it well.
Overall, it was a successful year for Fast. Adam Herman of Blueshirt Banter reported recently that the pending unrestricted free agent wants to stay in New York. So, there’s a good chance the Swede might be back in Rangers blue next season.