Pavel Buchnevich

Rangers move Kaapo Kakko to top line

With only 19 goals in seven games and a five-game losing streak heading into Thursday night, the New York Rangers are doing some line shuffling against the Buffalo Sabres in an effort to kickstart their offense.

The most notable change will see prized rookie and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko move to the top line where he will play alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

Artemi Panarin, the team’s big offseason acquisition and one of the few players on the team actually providing some offense this season, will play on the second line next to Ryan Strome and Pavel Buchnevich.

For Kakko, the Rangers are obviously hoping that getting him next to Zibanejad, the team’s leading offensive player since the start of last season, will give him a confidence boost and get him going offensively. He has been off to a slow start with just one goal, one assist, and only 11 shots on goal in his first seven games (and five of those shots came in just one game).

He has been extremely hard on himself this week, voicing frustration with his play to a Finnish news outlet and then doubling down on it with Rangers reporters on Wednesday, saying “I’m playing bad hockey” via the New York Post.

Now he gets a chance to break out of that funk next to the Rangers’ No. 1 center for the first time in his career.

“I mean, forget it, you see Mika Zibanejad as your center, you’re automatically getting a whole new level of confidence,” said Rangers coach David Quinn on Thursday, via the Rangers’ website. “So (Kakko) is in a much better position mentally when he sees that Mika Zibanejad is his center and Chris Kreider is his left wing.”

After starting the season with back-to-back wins (and scoring 10 goals in those games) everything has kind of fallen apart for the Rangers offensively since then. They have not scored more than two goals in a game since Oct. 5 (their second game of the year) and their next four games present quite a daunting list of opponents, starting with the 8-1-1 Sabres on Thursday. After that they play Boston and Tampa Bay at home before going on the road to play the Nashville Predators.

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.

Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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.

Kaapo Kakko gives Rangers fans glimpse of future with great OT goal

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New York Rangers fans got their first glimpse of Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, wearing the team’s sweater on Monday when he made his debut at the annual NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich.

He did not disappoint.

He had a hand in all four of the Rangers’ goals in the 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild prospects, assisting on the first three and then scoring a highlight reel goal in overtime to win the game. It was an incredible goal that featured him literally skating circles around the Wild’s defense before effortlessly scoring on a wraparound.

Have a look.

When asked about the play after the game, he responded by saying “I remember my old coach like two years ago told me, ‘In overtime, don’t pass.’ So I didn’t.”

On one hand, you can not make too big of a deal about what you see in prospect tournaments because a lot of the players taking place aren’t going to make it in the NHL or have any sort of a future in the league. The level of competition isn’t the same as what he is going to see starting this week when training camp begins, and especially once the regular season begins.

But it’s also hard to not get excited if you’re the Rangers or a fan because this is the type of player your organization needs to succeed.

The Rangers’ rebuild got a huge boost when they moved up to the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery and won the right to select Kakko. When combined with 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravstov the Rangers now have two elite prospects on the right side ready to arrive on the scene as soon as this season. For as good of a prospect as Kravstov is, Kakko is the real gem and the player that could completely swing the rebuild.

Remember, it’s not just one game in a prospects tournament that is going to feed the hype.

He also excelled at the IIHF World Championship earlier this summer with six goals in 10 games, and was a top-line player in the top Finnish league as a 17-year-old, finishing with 38 points in 45 games (then adding four goals and an assist in five playoff games). For context, there were 19 other players in the Finnish league that were age 17 or younger this past season. As a group, they finished with only 69 points in 245 man-games. None of them had more than 19 points on their own. Kakko was on a level all his own.

Given what the Rangers’ lineup looks like on the right side you have to figure he is going to get an opportunity to make an immediate impact. The Rangers’ right wingers at the moment include Pavel Buchnevich, Kakko, Kratsov, and Jesper Fast. Buchnevich will probably start the season on the top-line which would leave Kakko and Kratsov (assuming both make the roster) on the second-and third-lines. Given how Kappo has consistently excelled at every level no matter the competition across from him, it would not be a shock to see him eventually play his way into that top-line spot this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers re-sign restricted free-agent Pavel Buchnevich

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NEW YORK — The New York Rangers re-signed restricted free-agent forward Pavel Buchnevich to a two-year, $6.5 million contract Friday.

The 24-year-old Russian had 21 goals and 17 assists in 64 regular-season games last season. In 179 games in three NHL seasons, all with the Rangers, he has 43 goals and 58 assists.

Why Rangers should consider trading Chris Kreider right now

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The New York Rangers have undergone one of the most significant transformations in the league this offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and the good fortune that saw them move to No. 2 in the draft lottery where they selected Kaapo Kakko.

It has drastically changed the look of the team on the ice, both for the long-term and the short-term, and also significantly altered their salary cap structure.

With the new contracts for Panarin and Trouba adding $19.6 million to their salary cap number (for the next seven years) it currently has the Rangers over the cap for this season while still needing to re-sign three restricted free agents, including Pavel Buchnevich who is coming off of a 21-goal performance in only 64 games.

Obviously somebody is going to have to go at some point over the next year, and it remains entirely possible that “somebody” could be veteran forward Chris Kreider given his contract situation and the team’s new salary cap outlook.

Perhaps even as soon as this summer by way of a trade.

What makes it so complicated for Kreider and the Rangers is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a significant pay raise from his current $4.6 million salary cap number.

It is a tough situation for general manager Jeff Gorton and new team president John Davidson to tackle.

If you are looking at things in a more short-term window there is at least a decent argument for trying to keep Kreider this season, and perhaps even beyond. For one, he is still a really good player. He scored 28 goals this past season, still brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and is still an important part of the roster.

Even though the Rangers missed the playoffs by a significant margin this past season (20 points back) they are not that far away from being able to return to the postseason. Maybe even as early as this season if everything goes absolutely perfect. They added a top-10 offensive player in the league (Panarin), a top-pairing defender (Trouba), another promising young defender with potential (Fox), a potential superstar (Kakko), and still have a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) that can change a season if he is on top of his game. It is not a given, and not even likely, but the window is at least starting to open.

Even if they do not make it this season they are not so far away that Kreider could not still be a potentially productive member of that next playoff team.

The salary cap situation will be complicated, but the Rangers can easily trim elsewhere in a variety of ways, whether it be utilizing the second buyout window or trading another, less significant part of the roster. As we just saw this past week, there is no contract in the NHL that is completely unmovable.

They COULD do it.

But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, and that is the big issue the Rangers have to face with one of their most important players.

Should they keep him and try to sign him to a new long-term contract?

For as good as Kreider still is, and for as much as the Rangers have improved this summer, they still have to think about the big-picture outlook.

That means separating what a player has done for you from what that player will do for you in the future. For a team like the Rangers that is still building for something beyond this season, the latter part is the only thing that matters.

The reality of Kreider’s situation is that he is going to be 29 years old when his next contract begins, will be making significantly more than his current salary, and is almost certainly going to be on the threshold of a significant decline in his production (assuming it has not already started).

Let’s try to look at this as objectively as possible.

Kreider just completed his age 27 season, has played 470 games in the NHL, and averaged 0.29 goals per game and 0.59 points per game for his career.

There were 12 forwards in the NHL this past season that had similar numbers through the same point in their careers (at least 400 games played, at least 0.25 goals per game, and between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game). That list included Adam Henrique, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Drew Stafford, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Staal, David Perron, Lee Stempniak, and Kyle Turris.

This is not a perfect apples to apples comparison here because a lot of the players in that group play different styles and have different skillsets. They will not all age the exact same way or see their talents deteriorate in the same way. But what should concern the Rangers is that almost every one of the players on that list that is currently over the age of 30 has seen their production fall off a cliff. Some of them now carry contracts that look regrettable for their respective teams.

It is pretty much a given that as a player gets closer to 30 and plays beyond that their production is going to decline. Teams can get away with paying elite players into their 30s because even if they decline their production is still probably going to be better than a significant part of the league. Maybe Panarin isn’t an 80-point player at age 30 or 31, but it is a good bet he is still a 65-or 70-point player and a legitimate top-line winger.

Players like Kreider that aren’t starting at that level don’t have as much wiggle room, and when they decline from their current level they start to lose some (or even a lot) of their value.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Given the Rangers’ salary cap outlook, that is probably a risk they can not afford to take with Kreider long-term because it is far more likely that a new contract becomes an albatross on their cap than a good value.

You also have to consider that the Rangers have long-term options at wing that will quickly push Kreider down the depth chart.

Panarin is one of the best wingers in the league. Over the past two years they used top-10 picks in potential impact wingers (Kaako this year and Vitali Kravtsov a year ago). Buchnevich just turned 24 and has already shown 20-goal potential in the NHL.

As Adam Herman at Blueshirt Banter argued immediately after the signing of Panarin, committing more than $6 million per year to a winger that, in the very near future, may only be the fourth or fifth best winger on the team is a very questionable (at best) move in a salary cap league and gives them almost zero margin for error elsewhere on the roster.

Right now Kreider still has a lot of value to the Rangers for this season. He is probably making less than his market value, is still one of their best players, and still makes them better right now.

But when you look at the situation beyond this season his greatest value to them probably comes in the form of a trade chip because it not only means they can acquire an asset (or two) whose career better aligns with their next best chance to compete for a championship, but it also means they do not have to pay a soon-to-be declining, non-elite player a long-term contract into their 30s, a situation that almost never works out favorably for the team.

The Rangers have had to trade some key players and make some tough decisions during this rebuild.

They should be strongly considering making the same decision with Kreider.

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.