Under Pressure: Kevin Shattenkirk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers. 

Kevin Shattenkirk‘s career has been quite the roller coaster over the past two years.

Throughout most of the 2016-17 season he was seen as the big fish at the trade deadline that was supposed to put a contender over the top.

He ended up going to the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals where his performance was solid, but probably not as impactful as the team or its fans had hoped. The next season his former coach, Barry Trotz, offered a fairly honest assessment of his play. He acknowledged that Shattenkirk made their power play more dangerous and that the trade “worked out fine”, but he also added “I think everybody thought of him as a 1-2 and he really wasn’t. He was a little lower.”

Not a totally scathing critique, but definitely pretty blunt.

Following that season Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $26.6 million contract in free agency with the Rangers, a match that pretty much everyone saw coming from a mile away.

The first year of the contract did not go as anyone planned and went wrong in pretty much every possible way.

[Rangers Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Three Questions

Like the rest of the Rangers’ blue line, Shattenkirk struggled defensively and even found himself in the crosshairs for some criticism from coach Alain Vigneault that ranged from wanting to see “more urgency,” to calling him a “work in progress” in late December.

Perhaps one of the reasons things were not going well for him and the Rangers on the ice: He spent the first half of the season playing through an injury that no doubt limited him and then ultimately ended his season after just 46 games.

When all of that comes on the heels of a brief tenure in Washington that ended in disappointment it’s probably going to result in a pretty big hit to the reputation.

That tends to be the trouble with how we evaluate teams and players in professional sports, where what we saw from them last is what ultimately defines them. What we saw last, however, is not always the most accurate picture of what that player or team is or is capable of. And what have we seen last from Shattenkirk? A brief trip to Washington where he didn’t adjust and fit in as quickly as anyone would have liked, and an injury-shortened season in New York where he was probably never 100 percent.

The reality for him is that he is simply better than what we have seen from him over the past season-and-a-half, and more should be expected from him in 2018-19 for the Rangers.

For the six-year stretch between 2011-12 and 2016-17 Shattenkirk was one of the most productive defenders in the league. He was a constant lock for at least 45 points over an 82-game season and he always had outstanding possession numbers that placed him near the top of the league. During that five-year run he was 10th among all defenders in points per game (0.61) and had a 54 percent Corsi percentage that was 15th among defenders. He was one of only a small handful of players to be in the top-15 of both categories, and by pretty much every objective measure he was a top-15 player at his position in terms of his actual on-ice performance.

You do not just accidentally perform at that level in the NHL over a five-year stretch if you’re not a darn good player.

He also did not just suddenly lose all of that ability this past season. It is all still in there, and if healthy and in a system that might play to his strengths better than whatever it was the Rangers were doing this past season we could see very well see it on display once again. Heck, we even saw some of it last season when he started the year with 17 points in his first 18 games, including a seven-game point streak in November when he helped the team go on a 6-1-0 run.

For the Rangers’ sake they are going to need him to be healthy and return to that level of play because they are still counting on him to be a cornerstone of their defense for the next three seasons. As long as he is making more than $6 million per season during that time there is going to be an expectation for him to play at that level.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.