Fast Becoming Top of the Bottom Six

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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Nearly half the regular forwards in the NHL play less than 14 minutes per game. They comprise the league’s bottom six role players. They’re just good enough at even strength to not be a liability and often possess an above average ability at another key area of the game, be it taking faceoffs, killing penalties, as a power play specialist or among the dying breed of NHL fighters. Few perform their role as effectively and as admirably as the New York Rangers’ Jesper Fast, though.

In a recent game against the Hurricanes, I happened to be watching the Carolina feed. Fast broke up a play in the defensive zone, took the puck away from the attacking forward and made a smart clear out of the Rangers’ zone to spring an offensive attack. The commentators calling the play noted this. Later on the same shift, he tipped a point shot that was barely deflected wide by Carolina’s goaltender Cam Ward. “He’s a coaches dream,” one said, pointing out how he almost never makes defensive mistakes and also has the ability to add offense.

Known by his coach and teammates as “Quicky”, Fast had a breakout season for players of his ilk last year. He scored ten goals and added 20 assists for a 30 point total through 79 NHL games as he played most of the season on the Rangers’ third and fourth lines. Through 30 games this season, he’s averaging 0.40 points per game, which is a 33 point pace over 82 games. He currently sits 18th in the NHL in points per game among players who average 14 minutes or less and who have played in at least 20 NHL games this season. Moreover, his play away from the puck is stellar. He is almost always a player coach Alain Vigneault puts on the ice late when defending a close lead. He is usually tapped on the shoulder first when the Rangers face a penalty-killing situation, and he’s second to only Michael Grabner this season among Rangers’ forwards in short-handed TOI/GP with a 1.39 average.

In the offensive-zone he uses his foot speed to get in on the forecheck, effectively disrupting the other teams’ ability to break out cleanly. He also battles hard for pucks, often keeping the play deep in the opposing team’s zone for long stretches, wearing down defenders as he grinds through a cycle. When he comes away with the puck from these one on one situations, especially those that take place behind the net, he has quite frequently found open forwards in the low slot for high-quality scoring chances. Fast is also one of the best players at deflecting shots that the Rangers have seen in a long time. Because Fast plays limited even strength minutes, has typical bottom six line-mates and gets virtually no power play time, his ability to change the direction of shots won’t produce the number of goals a more offensively utilized forward might, it’s still creates some offense from his bottom six role.

 

Where Fast truly shines is in his defensive coverage up and down the ice. He limits his opposition’s time and space using both speed and a willingness to be physical, pressuring them into making mistakes caused by having to decide what to do with the puck quicker than they’d like. This breaks up plays, causes turnovers and ultimately leads to the Rangers sustaining pressure in the offensive zone or relieving it in the defensive zone. While the Rangers have had success in recent years while bucking the traditional possession advanced stats due to a more selective shot selection, Jesper Fast is still among their top performers in both CF% (48.0) and FF% (48.1) this season.

What you very rarely see from Fast is a mistake. You’re almost never left thinking that a goal scored against was because of something that he did or an assignment he failed at. Never throwing errant cross-ice passes that get picked off. Never getting turned inside out by opposing players. Never losing battles cleanly. He simply performs his job with professional efficiency, over and over again.

When you consider that he makes just $950K against the Salary cap, he’s one of the better bargain players in the league. He’ll be a 25 year old restricted free agent when this season ends and the Rangers will be hard pressed to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft for the Las Vegas Golden Knights (trademark pending). Fast is certainly the type of player an expansion team would covet. It remains to be seen whether they opt for a player like him or Rangers backup goalie on a tear, Antii Raanta.

He’s not flashy and rarely will he pull you out of your seat, but what he will elicit from Rangers’ fans is a slowly increasing applause after his efforts eat up a quarter of an opponent’s power play or continually breaks up plays late in a close game with other teams’ goalie pulled. It is appreciation that builds from the understanding that players like Fast ease your tension as they diffuse the kind of dangerous minutes which threaten to steal victories at crucial times. What makes Fast a special kind of hockey player is not the big moments, but rather the dozens of little ones, that quietly contribute to winning hockey games.

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