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Nils Lundkvist Should Get Another Long Look in Rangers Lineup

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NHL: DEC 07 Rangers at Blackhawks Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nils Lundkvist’s last game for the New York Rangers was on January 8, 2022 vs. the Anaheim Ducks, and when the team returns from the break he deserves to draw back into the lineup because of his skill set, and what he’s brought to the table this season. But whether that happens or not remains to be seen, with it seemingly looking like it is less likely to happen.

With the trade deadline looming, it is possible Lundkvist is someone who could be dangled by President and GM Chris Drury in an attempt to push the 30-13-4 Rangers closer toward being a Stanley Cup contender. The team’s usage of Lundkvist has been interesting to say the least, and his recent absence from the lineup while Adam Fox was sidelined stands out in a big way.

There remains a possibility that the franchise doesn’t see a future that includes Fox, Jacob Trouba, Lundkvist, and Braden Schneider on defense, and that Lundkvist has become the odd man out. A few days I had an informal poll in which I asked fans to choose one of four scenarios, and the results were as follows.

It was encouraging to see the second most popular option was to play both, something I think could work in time, but the most popular option was playing Schneider and trading Lundkvist, with the least popular option being the inverse. So... how did we get where we are?

Lundkvist made the roster out of camp and has appeared in 25 of New York’s 47 games. For the 22 games Lundkvist hasn’t appeared in, he’s been scratched or on the taxi squad for 11 games, off the roster for 7, and been sidelined 4 games because of an illness.

Before the stretch of four games in which Lundkvist was sidelined with an illness, he’d appeared in 8 consecutive games which was a career high. Upon returning, the Rangers’ rookie played three in a row before getting scratched three times in a four-game stretch ahead of a demotion to Hartford on January 11. He was recalled on January 27, but did not appear in any games before being sent down again on February 2.

Heading into the season, Lundkvist was considered the Rangers’ top defensive prospect, so it is curious that there’s been some yo-yoing considering his perceived importance to the franchise. This isn’t a case of Lundkvist as the Rangers’ top defensive prospect being the best in a weak pool, nor is it a situation where he’s been overvalued through prospect hugging.

Media who don’t cover the Rangers primarily tabbed Lundkvist as a really good prospect who was NHL ready.

In October of 2021 he was dubbed by Mitch Brown of EP Rinkside as one hockey’s most exciting prospects, and someone who was ready to make an impact.

In December of 2019, Corey Pronman called Lundkvist out as a prospect he was originally too low on, and stated “it was clear I underrated his skill and speed,” and in September of 2021 Pronman had Lundkvist as the Rangers’ fourth-best prospect overall.

These are just a few examples of saying that this isn’t a case where Lundkvist was built up by local media or the Rangers themselves to be something way more than he is. It has happened before with prospects, and will happen again, but that’s not the case here.

With all of this said, what do the numbers say about Lundkvist? As we always do with rookies, keep in mind the sample is small. For starters, here’s a look at how Lundkvist has been deployed, and what situations he’s been used courtesy of HockeyViz.com

Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

Lundkvist’s starts aren’t weighted heavily in either offensive or defensive situations, and he’s clustered with Libor Hajek, and to a lesser extent frequent partner Patrik Nemeth. Evolving-Hockey has his splits as 28.87 percent in offensive zone, 36.21 percent in the neutral zone, and 28.4 in the defensive zone.

This is interesting, because as the next chart will show, Lundkvist has been mainly used in situations when the team needs to score.

Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

Among regulars, here’s how Lundkvist rates in on-ice metrics among Rangers blueliners via Evolving-Hockey

  • 2.33 xGF/60 — 4th
  • 2.72 xGA/60 — 4th
  • 46.17 xGF% — 5th
  • 2.58 GF/60 — 3rd
  • 1.74 GA/60 — Tied for 1st with Ryan Lindgren with significantly less TOI
  • 59.8 GF% — 2nd
  • 46.17 CF% — 5th
  • 1.6 Goals Above Replacement — 4th

These numbers, albeit accomplished in 25 games, are perfectly respectable for a rookie defender making the jump from the SHL. Using GAR as an all-in number, Lundkvist’s 1.6 GAR puts him 9th in the NHL among all rookie defenders. If you only include roster regulars, Lundkvist ranks 5th behind Dysin Mayo, 1.9 (ARI), Timothy Liljegren, 2.4 (TOR), Alex Carrier, 4.3 (NSH), and Moritz Seider, 6.8 (DET).

His relative performance is even more impressive when you consider that he’s been part of the Rangers’ 3rd-most used pairing this season at 5v5 with Nemeth, a situation which limits his ability to have a significant offensive impact. Nemeth, for whatever reason, hasn’t gotten off to the start he’s wanted with the Rangers. He’s been away from the team recently, and hopefully everything’s OK with him in his personal life.

Lundkvist started to look himself once he got some games under his belt, and was deserving of some time with a defender not named Nemeth to see what additional impact he could provide. That has technically happened, but the problem is there’s not been any consistency of keeping a partner alongside him. That said, here’s how Lundkvist has been deployed at 5v5:

  • 239:07 with Patrik Nemeth
  • 15:12 with Jacob Trouba
  • 13:25 with Libor Hajek
  • 13:07 with K’Andre Miller
  • 10:49 with Jarred Tinordi
  • 9:01 with Zac Jones
  • 7:36 with Adam Fox
  • 2:43 with Ryan Lindgren

This isn’t ideally what you want to do with a rookie defender, and under normal circumstances I can understand why it has happened. Both Lindgren and Fox, and Miller and Trouba are established pairs, as evidenced by being the Rangers’ 2nd-most and most used pair respectively. OK, so you’d think with this being the case, naturally Lundkvist could stay where he is, and someone else could skate with him in Nemeth’s spot... right?

That didn’t happened, and instead the Rangers decided instead of calling up Braden Schneider, another one of their talented defense prospects. Lundkvist went down on January 11, and was replaced with Schneider who made his debut on January 13 vs. the San Jose Sharks. Since making his debut, a game in which he scored his first career goal, Schneider’s been a fixture in the lineup.

He started off with low minutes, but in the four games leading up to the break logged 18:53, 20:03, 21:56, and 21:47. In the first of these games Adam Fox left the game with an injury, and in the final three he was designated as Fox’s official replacement on the top pair. It’s interesting that he was put in that position, because stylistically he’s pretty redundant alongside Lindgren.

In many ways Lundkvist would have been perfect to skate with Lindgren because he has some similarities to Fox in terms of tendencies, and it would have even allowed him to assume Fox’s role on PP1 which instead went to Jacob Trouba. I bring this up because of something Gerard Gallant said in November when he compared Lundkvist to Fox.

Via the New York Post:

[Lundqvist’s progression] is steady; I mean there’s nothing real flashy out there, You talk about him [that] he’s going to be a talented power-play guy, but Foxy is out there for a good part of that power play so [Lundqvist] doesn’t get a whole lot of looks out there in that, but he moves the puck well, he’s got a lot of skill and a good hockey IQ. He’s never going to be a physical player and that’s not what we want. He’s a Foxy-type player, not at that level, obviously, but he just got over here. He’s doing everything we want. He’s young, it takes some time, but we’re happy as hell with him. He’s everything we thought he is.

Something changed, because despite being suited to take Fox’s spot, Schneider instead was trusted with that assignment instead of Lundkvist. That decision is something that stood out, and in a way it almost signaled that Schneider had done what the team wanted, and earned his place.

With that said, how has Schneider performed by the numbers thus far?

Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

Schneider here is straddling the line between offensive and neither, and among defenders in an area by himself.

Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

Based on deployment, he’s in a similar boat as K’Andre Miller, and bottom-six forwards like Kevin Rooney and Barclay Goodrow.

As for his ranks among Rangers D, here’s how Schneider stacks up via Evolving-Hockey:

  • 1.82 xGF/60 — 8th
  • 2.74 xGA/60 — 6th
  • 40 xGF% — 8th
  • 1.97 GF/60 — 6th
  • 1.98 GA/60 — 3rd
  • 49.9 GF% — 6th
  • 37.44 CF% — 8th
  • -0.3 Goals Above Replacement — 5th

These numbers are a bit rough, but it needs to be considered that he’s been getting tougher minutes on the top pair, and he’s got just 10 games of NHL experience. He also has had his fair share of time with Nemeth, and here’s a look at his TOI breakdown by partner.

  • 64:28 with Patrik Nemeth
  • 56:55 with Ryan Lindgren
  • 20:48 with Libor Hajek
  • 4:31 with Jacob Trouba
  • 4:10 with Adam Fox
  • 3:30 with K’Andre Miller
  • 0:58 with Zac Jone

Thus far Schneider’s been treated quite differently than Lundkvist, and there’s no discernible reason why. It is possible that Schneider at 6’2” and 209 pounds brings more perceived value to the roster than the 5’11”, 187 pound Lundkvist even though publicly that’s been denied.

Often times Gallant has talked about the Rangers needing to be able to play a man’s game. When asked earlier this year, Gallant explained it wasn’t about hitting, but instead earning puck possession through battle level. He specifically said via the New York Post:

More like play like a man, not because you’re younger [or] because you’re a younger kid, it’s coming into the league and you have to play a man’s game. If you have success in the NHL, you get success by playing a man’s game. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of boys on our team and around the league. But you have to play a man’s game, and we’re doing that, not every night, but when we do we’ll be a real good team.

As for Schneider and what he brings to the table, right now Gallant looks at Schneider in the style of Jacob Trouba, and said as much prior to the break.

He’s going to be a Trouba; he’s a mini-Trouba right now, That’s what the kid’s going to be. I like him a lot. He’s a young kid, getting better every game, plays a physical brand, has some skill. There’s a combination of a lot of good things there. He goes out there and makes very few mistakes.

There’s nothing wrong with that characterization, because Trouba is a valuable player. If Schneider lived up to that billing he’d be able to replace Trouba when he no longer fits the roster financially. But the question becomes, is that upside more valuable to the team than what Lundkvist could offer?

Overall it is hard to get a read on what Gallant is truly thinking, because he’s proven to be very good with the media at not tipping his hand. On a few occasions he’s downplayed decisions and injuries, and then we come to find out something different. At face value we have him saying he wants his team to play hard and compete, and he’s also spoken glowingly about both his young defenders.

But talk is ultimately cheap, and despite there being a recent opportunity to have both Lundkvist and Schneider in the lineup at the same time for a few games, the coach opted not to do so. Is it a big deal in long run? Not really, but it wasn’t something that made a ton of sense. There’s still a future where both remain in the organization for the time being, and that’s good too. Ultimately having competition for a roster spot is great, but that only works if the player with the better results wins out. That’s not happened thus far.

Evolving-Hockey.com

I don’t want to definitively say what that means, but I think it says something. Lundkvist ultimately should get another chance. Whether that happens remains to be seen. I wouldn’t fault anyone who draws the conclusion that he’s the likeliest odd man out.

Stats via Evolving-Hockey.com and HockeyViz.com unless otherwise noted.