Halfway There Report Cards 2017-18: Forwards Edition

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

Last Saturday night’s 2-1 shootout victory over the lowly Arizona Coyotes represented a bit more than a hockey game. The game itself was another two points, unnecessarily struggled for, but two more points nonetheless. By the sound of the final whistle, it also officially marked the halfway point for the New York Rangers for this 2017-18 NHL season.

RELATED: Halfway There Report Cards: Defense & Goalies Edition

As has become customary, we’re going to take a look at individual player performances, broken down into five grading groups, as of the halfway mark of the season. Those groups break down as follows:

1. “Excelling” — A+ to A-
2. “Succeeding” — B+ to B-
3. “Treading Water” — C- to C+
4. “Drowning/Failing” — D to F
5. “Incomplete”

In the interest of not making things overly complicated, players will be graded in these groups so we don’t get too caught up in the minutia of arguing the differences between an A and an A-minus. Additionally, any player who has played in fewer than ten games, or has been re-assigned to the AHL, Junior hockey, or overseas (despite playing more than ten games, if possible) will receive an Incomplete grade given the lack of games played to adequately judge their play.

So, without further ado, I give you the 2017-18 ClearedForContact Halfway There Report Card — Forwards Edition:


Excelling (A+ to A-)

For the high-scoring Rangers, currently tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for 10th in the league in GF/GP (3.02), no player is involved with that offense as often as leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. With 31 points in 41 games, the Norwegian is on pace for a 60-point season (61) for the second time in his career. In fact, should he reach it, he’ll have tied a career high in points, matching his 61-point 2015-16 campaign. With seven points in his last ten games, he’s also one of the Rangers’ most productive forwards as the new year begins.

Another key cog to the Blueshirts offense has been the sixth-year pro, J.T. Miller, who sits just behind Mats Zuccarello with 27 points — 21 of which have come at even strength, which ties him with Michael Grabner for the team lead. At this rate, he’ll again finish the year north of 50 points though he could end up shy of the 20-goal mark that he’s hit in both of his previous two years in New York.

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Speaking of Michael Grabner, like he did for a large stretch of last season, he’s again leading all Rangers in goals this year with 18 in 41 games — a pace that should see him surpass the 30-goal mark for the second time as a Blueshirt. Moreover, he’s third in the entire NHL in even-strength goals (18), behind only Alex Ovechkin (19) and Nikita Kucherov (24). That’s fabulous company to keep.

In the final year of his bargain contract, the Rangers will need to make a tough call on whether or not to trade him for future assets or not, but a second dominant scoring season on Broadway should resolve any concerns they might have about his longevity. As Teddy KGB would say, pay that man his money.

Grabner isn’t the last of the Rangers’ forwards putting in serious work offensively. In just his second NHL season, Pavel Buchnevich is third in scoring with 26 points in 41 games – just one point shy of Miller, and on pace for north of 50 points and his first 20-goal (22) campaign. Both would be career highs for him if AV actually puts him back into the lineup anytime soon. To put it kindly, his treatment since coming over to the Rangers under AV’s guidance has been up and down. Despite being the third-highest scorer on the roster, he’s been demoted to the fourth line, kept out of the top-six, and was a healthy scratch in the loss to the Golden Knights on January 7th, which should have fans questioning AV’s handling of his growth. This kind of early career boggling can really derail his progress if it’s not corrected soon.

His scoring potential is still high, though, and he’s also among the Rangers best in numerous scoring categories:

Last but certainly not least is the jack of all trades, master of none, Jesper Fast. If ever there was a Swiss Army knife… from Sweden, it’s Fast. With 17 points in 34 games, Fast is inarguably the Blueshirts’ premiere utility player this year. A trusted penalty killer (third among forwards in SH TOI/G) and a reliable five-on-five player, the only area of the game he doesn’t influence is the power play.

If Fast is a fourth-line player, he’s the gold standard for today’s NHL fourth line role. Name me another “fourth line” player in the league who is pacing 37 points in 74 games. I’ll wait…


Succeeding (B+ to B-)

Another fourth line staple who has really put his stamp on this season is Paul Carey, who went from forgettable offseason signing presumed for Hartford to scoring a memorable opening goal in the Winter Classic. Since making the team out of camp, Carey has been a factor—scoring, physical, or both—in most games in which he plays. With ten points in 30 games, he’s on pace for a dozen goals and just shy of 25 points. That’s ideal production out of a prototypical fourth line player in today’s NHL.

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With nine goals in 42 games, Jimmy Vesey is helping to fill the secondary scoring role for the Blueshirts this season. His pace will likely see him finish short of the 20-goal mark, but the 18 goal stride he’s on would be an incremental improvement over his rookie year total of 16 last season. Further to this, he’s also improved on his points per sixty minutes played (P/60), averaging 1.62 this year to last year’s 1.49. This is exactly the kind of steady growth the Rangers should be pleased with seeing.

Veteran center and bargain signing David Desharnais has also seen improvement—much more dramatic in his case—coming off an injury-plagued split campaign between Montréal and Edmonton last year. Between the clubs, Desharnais tallied just six goals and 14 points over 49 games. In ten less for the Rangers this year, he’s already topped that, with 19 points – a pace that could see him close the year just shy of 40 points. That kind of finish would be his highest since 2014-15 when he scored 14 goals and 48 points for the Canadiens.

At a cool $1M, that’s wonderful bang-for-buck for the Rangers.

When the Rangers traded veteran center Derek Stepan last summer, many rightfully questioned the team’s depth at center. Jeff Gorton and Alain Vigneault both seemed confident, however, in the abilities of players like Kevin Hayes to step up and fill the void. Though he appears on the shelf today, he has helped to shore things up by playing an integral role this year as a shutdown center. It’s affected his points projection, as he’s pacing just 34 points – a total that would be well low of the career-high he posted last season (49), but he has improved elsewhere, including on draws (50% compared to last season’s 45.7%) and in his possession metrics (46.8 CF% compared to last year’s 43.9, and 48.1 FF% compared to last year’s 44.8). These may seem suboptimal, but for a player again averaging a nearly 60% defensive zone start percentage (dZS%), they’re just fine.

The other center the Rangers front office put a lot of stock into—to the tune of a five-year, $26.75M extension is Mika Zibanejad, who has been hot and cold thanks to another midseason injury. Though it wasn’t as dire as the broken leg he suffered in 2016, Zibanejad suffered a concussion in late November (28th). Prior to that point, he had 22 points in 24 games to lead the Rangers in scoring. Since returning three weeks later on December 19th, he’s scored just two points in nine games. That sample size is small, of course, but measured against his play pre-concussion, it has to be a concern.

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Still, all things considered, he’s still on pace for 53 points (and 24 goals) over 73 games — a 0.73 points per game played (P/GP) average. That would be another incremental improvement on last season’s 0.66 P/GP pace and would be right in line with his year-over-year improvement that has marginally increased every year since 2013-14.

In the penultimate spot is the final piece of the Rangers’ bottom line, Boo Nieves, who has been the Blueshirts’ fourth-line center since they recalled him in late October. Next to Paul Carey, the two have formed a formidable duo, helping to round out the Rangers’ scoring with quality depth production that hasn’t come at the cost of substandard defense. Nieves is on pace for 23 points in just 66 games — a rate that might just justify a promotion in the future.

Last in this group is the only player who is least likely to be able to do anything about it thanks to a blood clot diagnosis and its subsequent rib resection surgery that will sideline him a minimum of two months — Chris Kreider. Next to Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, the trio was one of New York’s most dangerous lines, especially over the first two months of the season. With 22 points in 37 games, Kreider was on pace for 46 points and another 20-goal year – what would have been his fourth consecutive. But with at least a two-month recovery ahead, it’s unlikely he’ll get there this year. Then again, even if he had remained healthy, his overall totals are down from a year ago.


Treading Water (C+ to C-)

In the final year of his contract, Rick Nash is entering uncharted territory. He’s facing the prospect of free agency this summer for the first time in his career at the age of 33. Perhaps the uncertainty of knowing where he’ll be playing next season has weighed on him, his age is starting to catch up to him, or both, but Nash’s purpose on Broadway is to fill the net. This season, it’s a job he’s simply not accomplishing in spite of his efforts. In fact, he has just nine goals in 42 games. That’s a pace of 18 over a full 82-game season. Should he actually finish there, it would be the lowest outing of his career since 2015-16 when he scored 15 in a shortened 60-game season. From a goals per game played (G/GP) perspective, it would actually be worse than the 2015-06 season, however. He scored 0.25 G/GP then. That extrapolates to 20 goals over a full season. This year he’s scoring just 0.21 G/GP.

All of this is part of a larger scoring trend in which number 61 has seen his production dwindle since an outstanding 42-goal, 69-point 2014-15 campaign. Since then, his P/GP has consistently trended downward from 0.87 in 2014-15 to 0.60 in 2015-16, to 0.57 in 2016-17, to just 0.40 currently.

According to Darren Dreger, the Rangers have interest in bringing Nash back beyond this season, which makes sense given his pedigree and leadership qualities, but no doubt any extension would have to come at an extreme discount from the $7.8M he’s making today.


Drowning/Failing (D to F)

N/A


Incomplete

Filip Chytil and Adam Cracknell don’t meet the minimum games played requirements.

Discussion
  1. I find it hard to rank any forward an A. Maybe Boo, but neither Zuccarello nor Miller is having the season they had last year. Their inconsistencies have been a huge problem for this team, overall.


    based on expectations heading into the season:
    Kreider - below
    Zibenajad - exceeding, even with his current slump. Probably the only A up front if he doesn't get hurt
    Buchnevich - slightly above
    Nash - below (overall, his game has been solid, but he's paid to score)
    Hayes - offensively: blow, defensively: above
    Miller - below
    Zuccarallo - at
    Grabner - above
    Fast - slightly above (unsustainable sh% and his overall game hasn't been as effective as previous seasons - mostly due to injuries)
    Vesey - at, after a slow start
    Boo - above
    Carey - well above
    DD - above

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