Nils Lundkvist is a player that both fans and the front office have been patiently waiting to see in the NHL for quite some time, and he’s now played in 15 games for the New York Rangers.
Lundkvist, selected 28th overall in 2018, saw his stock as a prospect rise playing for Luleå in the SHL, and it was notable when he made the Rangers’ roster out of training camp, bypassing a stint in Hartford. Expectations were high for Lundkvist considering how he dominated the past two seasons, and now is as good a time as any to check in on the Rangers’ 21-year-old rear guard.
At a base level, Lundkvist has appeared in 15 of the team’s 20 games and tallied two assists, while averaging 14:08 a night on the third-pair alongside Patrik Nemeth. Nemeth is averaging 17:31 a night, and has seen some time on the penalty kill to make up for the minutes he is sometimes not getting at even strength.
In this limited sample at 5-on-5, Lundkvist has a GF% of 50.35 (5th), a CF% of 43.54 (5th), and an xGF% of 43.02 (6th) per Evolving Hockey. While these numbers look bad on the surface, I feel it is important to note that he has a goals against per 60 of 2.23 which is fourth among blueliners, and puts him behind Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, and Adam Fox.
Gerard Gallant has kept his defense pairs together for the bulk of the season to date, and the duo of Lundkvist and Nemeth has spent 163 minutes at even strength, and posted a GF% of 42.15, a CF% of 39.58, and an xGF% of 39.62. It is fair to say that thus far the Nemeth signing hasn’t panned out as expected, and his performance has dropped off a cliff vs what he did last year.
This is not to excuse Lundkvist entirely, because he’s had his fair share of the “yips” at times, but Nemeth’s shortcomings aren’t allowing the Rangers’ rookie to spread his wings and do the things that made him successful in the SHL.
For some examples of that, I recommend this great breakdown from Mitch Brown of Elite Prospects.
When looking at Lundkvist’s RAPM chart, you can see a stark difference in his performance compared to Nemeth.
I recognize fully that there’s a chance that what Lundkvist did offensively for Luleå may not translate 100 percent, but given the start the Rangers have gotten off to, now is a perfect time to start experimenting.
To his credit, Lundkvist thus far has a decent start in GAR and WAR, comin in at -0.1 and 0 respectively, which actually puts him ahead of K’Andre Miller who has posted a -0.9 and -0.2 in those same categories.
It is also worth pointing out that comes ahead defensively, and is brought down by short handed defense, and Lundkvist doesn’t kill penalties. Again, we are talking a very small sample size, and Miller has played in 367 minutes to Lundkvist’s 212, but it makes you wonder what could things look like if at a bare minimum the Rangers put someone neutral or positive next to Lundvkist.
There have been some moments this year where you can see what Lundkvist is capable of, moments which ultimately didn’t end up in a goal so therefore no points for him.
This is a perfect example, as Lundkvist makes a solid stretch pass to Panarin who as a result gained the zone. Then Panarin slowed things down and Lundkvist pinched in and got into a close position to put a quality chance on net.
Strome quickly ties the game 1-1, Lundkvist earns the primary helper pic.twitter.com/Vx4B94xGIa— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) October 2, 2021
Lundkvist hasn’t had much time to do things like this at 5v5, nor has he had the chance to do it on PP2. Thus far he’s played 16:44 on the power play, and he averages 1:07 per game. For context Chris Kreider is averaging 3:25, Artemiy Panarin is averaging 3:24, Mika Zibanejad is averaging 3:23, and Adam Fox is averaging 3:21 per game which makes sense when you consider PP1 sometimes stays on the entire time, or at least 1:30 of the 2:00. The chart below from HockeyViz puts that difference between unit usage on display.
I am not saying Nils should get a bump to PP1, but I think the Rangers should try taking Jacob Trouba off PP2 for a bit. The reason is that he is a defender who has been known for generating offense in the past, and often times he takes charge of PP2, or Nils will defer to him.
Lundkvist has a booming shot, see 3:01 of the video I linked to above, and I feel without Trouba on that unit the Rangers could use him similar to how Zibanejad is on PP1. Giving Nils some extra space here, and also allowing the team to potentially give a forward an opportunity in Trouba’s place would be worthwhile.
At a bare minimum, Nemeth should sit for a few games, and the team should send Libor Hajek down to Hartford to open a roster spot. While it is tempting to call up Zac Jones, who has looked very good, I don’t know how likely it is that Gallant would go with Jones-Lundkvist pairing. I would love for them to get a look, but I don’t see it happening yet. Additionally, unless Jones is going to play regular minutes with the Rangers, he’s better of staying in Hartford.
Barring a trade that would mean a call up of Anthony Bitetto, who would likely be a slightly better interim stop gap than Jarred Tinordi, but he still doesn’t solve the problem at hand.
Nemeth is signed at $2.5 million against the cap for two more seasons after this, and I don’t think the team is going to cut bait with him all that quickly. But if the Rangers are going to make the playoffs, and they have a good chance to do so, they’d be wise to dip into their cap space and upgrade their third pair and deal with getting rid of Nemeth’s money later.
Lundkvist has had an average start to his NHL career, and the Rangers are off to a 13-4-3 start with 29 points in 20 games. They have started to play better hockey, and aren’t relying on Igor Shesterkin as much as they did in the first 10 games, and they should use the buffer they have to experiment with some of their young players.
Learning as much as they can about Lundkvist and what he’s capable of is super important, because they need value contracts like his to be productive when you consider how much they have devoted to their top players. It is also good to know how deep the team actually is, who can be counted on, and where the team’s shortcomings are ahead of the playoffs. It is important to realize that the team has been taking things slow with Lundkvist, and he’s only 21. If anything I feel they can start pushing him a little more, and one way to do so is create an opportunity where he’s not being held back by an anchor — which unfortunately, Nemeth has unexpectedly been.
Lundkvist has been widely considered one of the best defense prospects in hockey, and so far he’s holding his own. Putting him in a situation to succeed, and fully taking advantage of his abilities will help make the team better and deeper for when the games matter even more in the spring.
Stats via Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise noted.