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There has been leakage in Pavel Buchnevich’s game the last half-dozen games or so, and enough of it to have merited a down-the-ladder assignment to the fourth line down the stretch of Friday’s 1-0 defeat to the Bruins that meant two shifts worth 1:46 of time over the final 11 minutes.
The winger, who has skated most of the last two-plus seasons on the right of Mika Zibanejad in the middle and Chris Kreider on the left flank, has scored one goal over the last 11 games entering Tuesday’s Garden clash against the well-rested Devils. That was an empty-netter against the Caps in the 4-2 victory on Feb. 4 that represents the Blueshirts’ last win.
The lack of production hardly makes Buchnevich stand out. Indeed, he would fit right in with the crowd that entered Tuesday’s match having scored all of twice in the 181:23 since No. 89 put the puck into the vacated cage. It is other elements of the game that David Quinn cited in his pre-game video conference in explanation of why Buchnevich was dropped in the order.
“I thought he was our best forward for seven or eight games and then there’s been a dip in his game,” said the coach. “The consistency of what he was doing earlier in the year where there was a consistent effort, a consistent edge to his game.”
The translation is that Quinn doesn’t see quite the same level of hardness on the puck, diligence away from the puck and competition in battles as the Rangers attempt to work their way through this desert of production.
“It’s fallen a little bit and I think he’s been a little bit frustrated from an offensive perspective, which can creep into other areas of people’s games,” Quinn said. “We just need him to get back to where he was.
“We’ll see how it goes [against the Devils] and at some point in time we may reward people [who are] playing better.”
Here’s the thing, though. Buchnevich’s average ice time of 20:00 per game that ranks him 30th among NHL forwards probably should be reduced regardless of his production or competence away from the puck. He has been on the putative first line with Zibanejad and (mostly) Kreider, he has been on the power play and he has been on the first penalty-killing tandem.
His 20:00 per represents a jump of 18.1 pct. from last season’s 16:56. That is a notable addition to Buchnevich’s workload that for the first time in his NHL career has included work with the shorthanded unit. That is something the 25-year-old Russian has been very good at, even through this fallow stretch of offense. Indeed, Buchnevich has been on for only three power play goals against in 35:25 and has been on for the fewest shots against per 60 minutes of any Blueshirt forward.
Maybe the winger’s drop in physical play coincides with the additional ice time. No offense (alternate meaning), but we’re not quite talking about a physical specimen here, either. It must, however, be noted that Buchnevich was there, front and center, to challenge Brad Marchand when the Boston winger attempted to take some liberties with Artemi Panarin after No. 10 returned to the ice Feb. 10 after sitting for a long stretch with an unidentified lower body injury that has sidelined him since. It should also be noted that Buchnevich stood in and exchanged punches with Boston defenseman Jeremy Lauzon two nights later.
The larger picture, though, is this: Quinn is one of those coaches who likes to ride his horses, one of whom this season he has identified as Buchnevich. Edmonton’s Dave Tippett rides Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the trio among the top eight forwards in the NHL for average ice time. The Maple Leafs’ Sheldon Keefe rides Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, first and fourth, respectively. The Sabres’ Ralph Krueger rides Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Taylor Hall, the three between 10th and 18th up front.
Quinn and the Rangers? Panarin is 14th, Zibanejad is 16th and Buchnevich is 30th. That does not seem excessive, certainly not for a team that is top-heavy and lacks depth, but it sure can be when the marquee guys act like bit players. This hasn’t been last year, when Panarin and Zibanejad took turns carrying the offense pretty much from start to finish.
The ongoing absence of Filip Chytil, sidelined since sustaining an unidentified injury at Pittsburgh on Jan. 24 and still not skating, has highlighted the lack of depth. That’s been a double whammy for the team and the coach, whose doubling-down on the top guys has not paid off. Prior to New Jersey, the Rangers had scored a sum of 19 goals at five-on-five in their 13 games, amounting to 1.46 per. Only the Sabres at 1.36 per have been worse.
So if Quinn is considering giving more ice to players who are “playing better,” the time might not merely be near, but it might have already come.
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