Rookie forward Pavel Buchnevich will sit in the stands Thursday night as the New York Rangers square off against the rival New York Islanders. The reason for his benching is that the Rangers’ Head Coach Alain Vigneault felt that “Buch had a so-so game last game. Part of the growing process of a young player.” He also went on to say that Matt Puempel, another young player, deserved an opportunity to get back in the lineup.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 15, 2017
To be fair to AV’s criticism of his play, Buchnevich has just a single assist over the last ten games, however he’s only been entrusted with just under 9:30 per game on average over the span. That’s a significant drop off in production when you consider that in the first four games after returning from a back injury he scored two goals and added four helpers. So what changed and why does coach AV think that missing time is the way to fix it?
In his first game back on January 13th against Toronto , Buchnevich played on a line with Jesper Fast and Brandon Pirri. He had an assist and played well. In his second game after the injury the next night against Montreal, he was elevated to play with Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash. Again, he had an assist and played well. His next game which was against Dallas, he was paired up with Nash and Mika Zibanejad. That night he scored a goal and added two assists. To cap off his first four games he played on a line with Nash and Zibanejad, putting up a goal. All was right in Buchnevich’s world.
In the following game, a 1-0 overtime win in NY, AV left the line together, but broke them up just halfway through the following game against Los Angeles—a game the Rangers would win 3-2. In that game Buchnevich would end up playing on Oscar Lindberg’s wing with Chris Kreider on the other side. Then in the next game AV would go back to the line with Nash and Zibanejad. If one thing is certain, Vigneault likes to try to force a line to work once he gets it in his head that it should. Even at the point of sacrificing previous combinations that had produced, like the one of Zibanejad, Kreider and Buchnevich, which dominated to start the season but has yet to be reunited. Two parts of that line played together but, the coach was convinced that Nash, not Kreider, was the answer on the other wing. To be fair, the line of Kreider, Stepan and Mats Zuccarello had found really good chemistry, but AV had no problem breaking that line up against LA and did manage to put Kreider back with Buchnevich, only for some reason Lindberg was the pivot he went with instead of Zibanejad, who finished that game with Nash and Puempel.
Perhaps Vigneault is worried that if he reunites that once prominent line and they succeed, along with a J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner line that he simply can not break up, he’ll need to put Stepan with Nash and Zuccarello as a unit, while pushing Jimmy Vesey down to the fourth line. And if that unit doesn’t work, then Vesey comes up and…Zuccarello or Nash play on the fourth line? It’s an embarrassment of riches to be sure. As such, some of this is on Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton to move out one of these top 9 wingers to improve the defense prior to the trade deadline and then the Las Vegas expansion draft that will mean exposing a very valuable forward and losing him for nothing.
Until then, AV’s solution has been to push Buchnevich down in recent games to a line with Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg. While both are fine checking forwards and another component of the amazing forward depth, Fast and Lindberg don’t fit the style of play that Buchnevich excels at. He’s a square peg being forced into a round hole and his production has suffered for it. That sole assist came against Anaheim on February 9th on a beautiful backhand pass in front of the net finished off by Oscar Lindberg.
Lindberg and Fast simply don’t have the kind of skill or offensive awareness to benefit from that kind of creativity. They’re grind in the corner guys. Buchnevich has proved willing to go to those areas and play that style of game, but it’s not to his strengths. He’s also too valuable a future cost-controlled asset to be toyed with in the way Vigneault has started to. By pushing him down in the lineup and now out of it, he’s sending the wrong kind of message. Instead, he should be finding opportunities to insert Buchnevich with more skilled and creative players to accentuate that portion of his game. This is reminiscent of the way J.T. Miller was brought along. In Miller’s case, though, he was often making very questionable defensive zone high-risk plays which, when they backfired, cost the Rangers on the scoreboard. It was an element to his game that needed to be corrected. That’s not the case with Buchnevich.
While Matt Puempel has shown some value and increased the Rangers depth, and Brandon Pirri is also sitting on the sidelines waiting for another opportunity, the Rangers have some older forwards that could benefit from some rest. Nash or Zuccarello could be given a night off here and there to keep them fresher for the playoff run. Or maybe Jimmy Vesey, another Rangers’ rookie who spent his last four years playing a much shorter college schedule, might benefit from a night off here and there as he has also struggled after a hot start. He has just two points, both goals, in his last 17 games.
Whatever the solution, playing Buchnevich with grinding forwards or now sitting him can’t be the solution. He’s too valuable a part of the Rangers’ future to handle that way.