So the Rangers’ young men — and Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal, too — head west for four games beginning with Sunday’s match in Las Vegas before taking the three-city tour through California.
When the trip concludes next Saturday, perhaps David Quinn and the front office will have a better idea of how to handle Brett Howden, now stuck in the Lias Andersson role as fourth-line center on a team that only occasionally uses its fourth line.
Mika Zibanejad’s return from his 13-game absence most certainly has improved his team’s talent level. But No. 93’s reintroduction into the lineup has muddled personnel combinations that had pretty much remained intact through that baker’s dozen of matches in which the Blueshirts went 8-4-1.
And as long as Quinn insists on leaving Ryan Strome in the middle, the 21-year-old Howden becomes the center without a top-nine chair when the music stops, those seats reserved for Zibanejad, Strome and Filip Chytil.
Remember when, toward the end of training camp, Quinn said that it wouldn’t do anyone much good to have a 21-year-old skating in the middle of the fourth line? He was correct, because it did not good much good for Andersson, currently toiling for the AHL Wolf Pack, and it is not doing much good for Howden, even if he did have Pavel Buchnevich on his wing for a handful of third-period shifts in Friday’s 2-1 defeat to Montreal.
At the time, the coach suggested one of the young centers would move to wing rather than be relegated to the fourth line. But that did not happen with Andersson, and it has not happened with Howden, who lined up on the wing once in last year’s rookie season. That happened to be the game on Jan. 29 against the Flyers in which he suffered a knee injury midway through the first period that sidelined him for just over a month.
Andersson bumped along for 17 games this season in which he averaged 9:33 of ice and got 10:00 or more only seven times. It is doubtful that the hierarchy wants a repeat with Howden, who averaged 15:24 as the third-line center through the first 24 games but has gotten 9:18 per over the past four contests as the fourth-line pivot while only once breaking the 10:00 barrier.
Friday, Howden played 9:21 but received only three shifts worth 1:54 in the third period and did not get off the bench for the final 8:56. Buchnevich, dropped to the fourth unit for the final period in an exchange with Brendan Smith, also got three shifts (for 1:50) while stapled to the pine for the final 9:01.
Buchnevich is a taffy-pull for Quinn. The winger is simply not physically engaged consistently enough to warrant the minutes and assignments his skill-set would otherwise merit. It has been a year-plus of cajoling from the coach and a year-plus of intermittent responses from the player. If the 24-year-old Russian cannot get top-six and power-play minutes, then it is probably better for all concerned that he play elsewhere.
And if Howden is going to continue in a fourth-line role in which he can expect a ceiling of 10 minutes a night, it is probably best for both the center’s development and the organization that he join Andersson in Hartford. Howden has three assists in his past nine games and five points (one goal, four assists) in his past 20 contests.
Quinn seems to be under self-inflicted pressure to move Kaapo Kakko in a top-line role even though he has played his best and most forceful hockey on the line with Howden and Brendan Lemieux. Hence, the decision to shift the Finn onto the unit with Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin starting late in the first period on Friday. It is anybody’s guess if the unit will remain intact for the match against the Golden Knights.
Barring injury, the only way to elevate Howden back onto the third line would be to shift Strome onto right wing, where he has lined up twice this season. Quinn originally opted to keep Strome at center because of his obvious chemistry with Panarin. But Panarin is no longer on No. 16’s left side. In that case, the coach should be unrestrained in moving Strome to wing.
That is if the idea is to get Howden back into the mix. We’ll know over these next four games.
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