NEW YORK — Kevin Shattenkirk’s return home to play for the New York Rangers wasn’t filled with “sunshine and rainbows” as he jokingly said he expected after Sunday’s practice at Citi Field ahead of the 2018 Winter Classic.
The big free agent acquisition hasn’t fully settled into his role on the blue line after signing a four-year, $26.6 million deal over the summer. The 28-year-old Shattenkirk may lead Rangers defensemen in points (22), but he’s on pace for his lowest offensive output in four seasons as he averages 0.58 points per game.
All in all, Shattenkirk hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations placed upon him when he entered the lineup. Head coach Alain Vigneault called him a “work in progress,” an assessment the blue liner agreed with.
“We’re still working through how he wants me to play and how he just wants his defensemen to play,” Shattenkirk said. “I’ve watched guys who’ve been here for a while like [Ryan McDonagh] and Marc [Staal], Nick Holden’s another guy. I think that there’s elements in their game that I’m trying to incorporate and add to my game. We play slightly different defensively than I’m used to. It’s something that I like. It’s aggressive. It’s something that intrinsically I haven’t gotten it to become a natural instinct yet and I think I need to get those little things into my game.”
“There’s no doubt that our expectations and his expectations are a little bit higher than what we’ve seen so far,” said Vigneault. “I think Shatty’s probably putting a little bit of pressure on himself to do real well in front of new teammates, a new environment, friends and family. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time. He’s not the first player to go through this, to come back home and play. But he’s a hard working young man with a real good attitude, very accountable to his performance. He knows the areas that he needs to improve and that we expect him to do better and I’m very confident that we’re going to get there because our team needs that.”
Having grown up just outside New York City in New Rochelle, N.Y., Shattenkirk will have plenty of friends and family inside Citi Field on Monday for the game against the Buffalo Sabres. And being so local, that’s been a trend all season long at Madison Square Garden, where there’s always someone he knows in attendance watching the games. That’s caused him to put too much pressure on himself — enough to have a negative influence on his game.
“Yeah, I’m definitely guilty of that,” he said. “Last year in the playoffs, it was another prime example of me doing that to myself and doing it too much. I think it’s only natural. I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always wanted to be the harshest on myself more than anyone else. And there are times when I need to let myself off the hook a little bit and relax. I’ve felt that way the last couple of games, I’ve felt a lot more relaxed and just playing my game. It’s hard to do sometimes. You get caught up in things. When things start going poorly, you try to do too much to correct it.”
Through his days with the St. Louis Blues and then at the end of last season after he was dealt to the Washington Capitals, Shattenkirk has been a positive possession player, sporting an above 50 percent Corsi rating. But this season, playing mostly with Brady Skjei, he’s been under 50 percent at even strength, per Corsica, and poor puck management saw him benched for nearly 10 minutes against the New Jersey Devils last week.
“You know, at the end of the day, when the game gets [to] crunch time, you do what you feel is best for the team,” Vigneault said after that loss. “That’s what we felt was best for the team.”
In the three games since that benching, Shattenkirk has played 20:56, 19:18 and 18:52, respectively, and said he’s feeling better overall about the way he’s been trending. Why?
“Again, just relaxing,” he said, “not worry about making mistakes and worrying about going out there the next shift and doing something to affect the game in a positive way. That’s the mentality that I need to keep in my head throughout an entire game.”
As the calendar changes to 2018, the Rangers find themselves holding one of two wild card spots as part of a very tight Metropolitan Division. Their final 44 games will prove to be a battle to secure a playoff spot for another spring and time for the puck-moving defenseman they added in the off-season to find his game at the right time.
“I’m working to get it back in the right direction and working to get things going well so I’m just transitioning into this team seamlessly,” said Shattenkirk. “When I go out there guys know what they’re getting. I want to keep that consistently. This is the time to do it — January, February. That way by March and April you’re playing your best hockey.”
More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
• Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
• Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
• Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half
• Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions