It would be a stretch only Simone Biles is capable of to say that anyone on the Rangers played “well” in the opening night blowout against the Islanders last Thursday. The fourth line had some good shifts and Adam Fox did his best to keep his head above water. Everyone else appeared to be pedestrian, at best.
Pavel Buchnevich would seemingly belong to that group, with the right-winger most known for offensive flair attempting zero shots and not playing a role in any notable offensive action.
Yet without the Russian’s efforts, the 4-0 blowout loss could have somehow been worse. It would be wrong to characterize the Rangers as having been lazy on that night, but Buchnevich in particular had his motor going and showed alertness that led to his diffusing of breakdowns elsewhere. On a least two occasions, he made tremendous full-rink efforts to break up Islanders transition rushes just in time.
Head Coach David Quinn made a notable decision to put Buchnevich on one of the team’s top penalty-killing units. The surprise is not necessarily in Buchnevich’s ability to execute in the role but that it’s a dramatic change in usage. Buchnevich had previously only played 4:43 of total penalty-killing icetime in the previous two seasons and was often a favorite selection to serve bench minors. Through two games, Buchnevicch has already played 7:16 in shorthanded minutes. The frequent penalties partly account for that heavy usage so far, but so does Quinn’s trust in the player, whom he deemed as having “the best camp he’s had since I’ve been here.”
Buchnevich was not part of any unit culpable in giving up a PP goal against and in fact he showed early upside in the role. In particular, he made multiple efforts to kill attempted entries by the Islanders while the Rangers killed off Tony DeAngelo’s consecutive minor penalties.
He showed strong awareness of the Islanders’ breakout options and was ready to react to where the puck was going, particularly in the first clip when he’s playing the important, lone role as the second layer in the forecheck.
Two games are just two games and drawing major conclusions from that first impression is a perilous endeavor, but the rise of Buch predates this back-to-back. Per Evolving Hockey, Buchnevich was worth 13.4 net goals for his team in 2019-20 compared to a replacement-level player; good for 35th among all NHL skaters. More striking is that his defensive impacts put him in the 77th percentile.
Perhaps he’s a better defensive player now than he was last season, when he was better than the previous year, but that would seem in line with the natural development path of a player approaching his mid-20s. A learning curve that has been afforded to far lesser players confusingly did not earn him the same benefit of the doubt among many of his skeptics.
It makes all the sense in the world that it’s coming together for Buchnevich. A 6’3 winger who skates well for his size, battles for pucks, and shows intelligence on the ice. So many of his offensive skills are translatable to the other side of the puck. He needed time to get acquainted with the North American game plus a coach who believed in him.
Since January of 2020, Buchnevich has produced 12 goals and 16 assists in 31 regular-season games. All offensive players are streaky. After experiencing the unforgiving side of variance for parts of the previous two seasons, he’s now combining performance plus fortunate dice rolls to the best numbers of his career.
Now the team’s head coach is putting his trust in Buchnevich to be one of the team’s most important players in a variety of roles. There will be more cold streaks in the box scores to come, but maybe now undeniable contributions on the defensive side of the puck will quell criticisms and labels as an inconsistent or disengaged player; labels which were usually unearned and hard to separate from Russian stereotyping. Perhaps Buchnevich will finally get the respect he’s long deserved as a multi-faceted contributor integral to the team’s success.
How fortunate for Buchnevich that this epiphany has arrived in a contract year.