Nick Holden Isn’t The Problem Right Now

Nick Holden has had a strange few months. Going from a top-used defenseman in the playoffs (with disastrous consequences), to potential trade fodder thanks to a late-summer addition of Anthony DeAngelo, to a healthy scratch at the start of the year, to now a top-pairing defenseman on the New York Rangers.

These extreme variable changes aren’t new or unexpected in the Alain Vigneault era. DeAngelo, as an example, has gone from a top-pairing guy to an AHL mainstay. Pavel Buchnevich has gone from a top-line forward, to a fourth line staple, and now (thankfully) back to a top-line forward. Sometimes the changes happen over the course of an hour or two. Sometimes it’s a few days.

I’ve been a pretty loud advocate for Holden to be sitting in the press box or shipped off to another team for assets. In fact, as recently as his last game I’ve tweeted things like this:

Some of this is leftover animosity from his performance in last year’s playoffs, some of it is the fact that he’s currently manning the top line, and a good chunk of it is the players who are sitting because of him. The point, though, is that he hasn’t been nearly as bad as people (myself included) have thought he’d be.

His overall corsi at even strength isn’t amazing (just 47%) but relative to the team it’s just a -0.16. Again, not great, but it could be worse. (Ironically enough Tony DeAngelo leads the team in corsi — much like Adam Clendening did all last year without playing much). The more important numbers, however, shine through on his actual defensive progress. He has a +3.07 expected goals differential, and his expected goals for percentage is over 58%. Both of those are positive trends for Holden comparative to the rest of the team.

I’d normally lean toward saying some of this is from him playing with Ryan McDonagh, but McDonagh has struggled this year so it’s worth keeping a closer eye on. McDonagh does have a much higher corsi at nearly 52%, but his expected goals numbers are far worse. It’s also worth noting there were stretches last year where Holden was a very good defenseman for the Rangers, but they didn’t really last all that long and he broke down at the most critical moments of the year.

Holden has had moments of absolute ineptitude, of course, but he’s also had moments like this:

And, sure, McDavid could have been having a bad game, but he’s still one of the best players in the world, and Holden hung with him. For a night at least. (Small sample size, of course).

I still maintain there’s better lineup combinations without him on the top pair. McDonagh is slowly starting to come around, as is Kevin Shattenkirk, but it feels like a waste to pair Shattenkir or Brady Skjei with Steven Kampfer ever. And that’s really where this does turn into the issue: Kampfer.

I have no idea what the deal is with Brendan Smith. The rumors circulating (starting with Don La Greca) were that Smith was out of shape. That might be true, but tonight will mark his sixth-straight game of a healthy scratch binge that’s lasted since Halloween night. He’s played in just 11 of the Rangers first 18 games.

So what happens? The ideology behind sitting Smith because he’s out of shape to punish him isn’t a bad one, but it’s been two weeks now of consistent lack of playing time, and that doesn’t help anyone. Smith wields a “so new it still smells like the box” four-year extension that’s worth $17.4-million. Does it really make financial sense to sit him for this many games? Especially in the name of “not changing the lineup after a win” (which is beat reporter nonsense) or “things are going good right now so why change them?”

It’s not like Kampfer is lighting the world on fire. His 44% corsi, -3 goal differential, and 45% expected goals for percentage aren’t something we should be thrilled with. Neither are Smith’s 44% corsi, 0 goal differential, and 42% expected goals for percentage. But Smith’s career numbers paint a far better picture for him to bounce back. Kampfer has always been, and will always be, Kampfer. What exactly are we looking for here?

Smith coming to camp out of shape would make sense based off his play alone. Players suddenly don’t just forget how to play hockey. But sitting Smith for six games in a row helps no one. It doesn’t help Smith get better, which in turn doesn’t help the Rangers get better, and then we spin this entire thing in a cycle. Have the Rangers won five games in a row? Yes they have. But at some point the future of Smith as a Ranger needs to be more important than the (should be) non-existent one of Kampfer.

We’ve also reached the point where Smith is going to come in ice cold and be expected to be a world beater. That’s probably not going to happen, so we might be right back here anyway.

In the end, Smith needs to be playing. But not for Holden, for Kampfer.