New York Rangers Are Nervously Watching Buchnevich’s Blues Rise

The New York Rangers appear to have made a quantum leap in 2021-22, with new leadership in the front office and behind the bench re-shaping and nurturing a talented roster into a playoff contender as the club’s rebuilding efforts of nearly four years have come into focus.

At 23-10-4, there haven’t been a lot of reasons for hand-wringing. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to look back at one recent personnel decision and not worry about how it might limit the Blueshirts’ potential as championship contenders into the near future.

That would be right wing trade in the offseason Pavel Buchnevich was traded to the St. Louis Blues as a salary cap move. The move was met with much criticism, but it became less lopsided after the principle return from the trade began to play well. This has brought back the question of whether Buchnevich has prospered with his new team, while his old one tries to fill a gap in the top-six forward corps.

Pavel Buchnevich St. Louis Blues
Pavel Buchnevich, Blues forward (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Contrary to the simplistic social media outrage, Buchnevich was not the result of a complicated situation Chris Drury, first-year general manger, was faced with. In the end, though, it’s fair to render a verdict on all of a team’s personnel moves. A judgment of this one is of course premature, but at the moment, the Rangers have to be crossing their fingers that the results don’t get worse.

Buchnevich’s Development Continuing With Blues

It’s unlikely that the Blueshirts had any illusions about Buchnevich failing to continue to produce with the Blues, but they’ve watched as the 26-year-old has piled up 33 points in 32 contests. Buchnevich, who’s recorded nine goals and 15 assists in his last 17 games, has thrived for the 21-10-5 Blues on the top line with Ryan O’Reilly and Ivan Barbashev.

The sixth-year player’s outstanding all-around game, which started to fully emerge last season when he totaled 20 goals, 28 assists and a plus-12 rating, has only gotten better since departing. Buchnevich is a plus-16 and boasts a 52.5 Corsi for percentage and 52.5 expected goals for mark, with St. Louis scoring 26 goals and giving up only 11 with Buchnevich on the ice at 5-on-5 (courtesy naturalstattrick.com).

Rangers traded for a third-round draft pick in 2013. This player was an exceptional two-way player who is expected to peak at the end of his career. As for the Blueshirts’ return on the trade, The jury is out Most likely, for a long time.

Sammy Blais, New York Rangers
Sammy Blais, bought by the Rangers from The Blues for BuchnevichJess Starr/The Hockey Writers

Sammy Blais (25-year-old power forward) was that player. He, despite not being an offensive threat, made a major contribution on the ice with physical play and personality. Blais sustained a season-ending knee injury in November. Blais was a right wing player for the Rangers along with Chris Kreider (and Mika Zibanejad) on their top-line. In the trade, the Rangers also received an 2022 second-round selection.

Buchnevich’s departure, Blais’ injury and the Unsinkable exit of Vitali KravtsovThe Rangers have managed to fill the void left by Barclay Goodrow at the right wing. This has been crucial in their recent revival. However, relying on Barclay Goodrow, who’s much better in a bottom-six role, and Dryden Hunt isn’t a long-term fix. As a result, Drury might need to go out and add a skilled forward at the deadline – similar to the one he traded in July.

The GM blew the deal, right? It is not so simple. Buchnevich, a beloved player among his teammates, might have been dissatisfied with the deal. Yet not one person among those voices was in Drury’s position – that was, facing an onrushing salary-cap crunch as the team’s young talents were methodically beginning to reach the end of their entry-level contracts.

Related: 3 Reasons The Rangers Are 2022 Stanley Cup Competents

The conundrum was Drury’s to solve, and the fact is the math just didn’t work. Buchnevich was a restricted-free agent at the time of his west trade, and signed a four year contract with St. Louis with an average annual value of $5.8million. Rangers lock down Adam Fox, a star defenseman, and No. With Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers secured star defenseman Adam Fox and No. Big extensions in the offseasonThey face raises for forwards Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere this summer. The club is also looking for a way of keeping Ryan Strome, the second-line center, in their lineup. This may prove difficult given the pending unrestricted agent who will cash in in the offseason.

Drury was therefore in a losing situation. For an organization that is still very thin in the middle, it seemed absurd to pay large sums to a winger while the Rangers appeared to have a lot of veteran depth at the position. To make his roster more tough and grittier, the GM used an unavoidable cap casualty as a way to address that need, and brought in the big-hitting Blais.

Chris Drury New York Rangers
Chris Drury, general manager of the Rangers (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).

The unspoken hope when the deal was made, of course, was that the kids’ eventual rise would make the trade of Buchnevich a footnote.

This logic could start to crumble over time. Again, there probably wasn’t a realistic alternate course of action Drury could have taken, but the problem is this – in remaining justifiably committed to Kakko and Lafreniere, it’s possible that the Rangers may have ended up choosing the wrong young forwards to build around. Could Buchnevich – gasp! – end up being better than both of them?

No general manager would trade No. 1, or No. ELCs have 2 top picks for overall selections, particularly if a pandemic impedes their development in the crucial early years. And it’s certainly far too early to assess what Kakko and Lafreniere will develop into.

Kakko, Lafreniere Haven’t Matched Buchnevich’s Contributions

Both players have been making slow progress. To be sure, there have been strides over the past two seasons, but more of that seems to come in the form of “positive signs” – strong play in their own end, engaged efforts in the offensive zone, conscientious all-around work at even strength – than actual production.

What Kakko and Lafreniere haven’t been are immediate impact players, as some top-of-the-draft picks tend to be. Both have experienced many growing pains. But at some point, each player must be able to see the light. Kakko’s and Lafreniere are going to measure their success by how many points they score. Both wingers were drafted by the Rangers in order to become the centerpieces of their offense.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
Rangers right wing Kaapo KakkoAmy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

Jack Hughes, who was first chosen over Kakko by the New Jersey Devils 2019 in 2019, can be used as a comparison. 2021-22: BreakthroughHe scored 20 points in 19 games and displayed the skills that the Devils believed would enable him to become their star player. Kakko has totaled five goals and eight assists this season, and while he’s played relatively well, his progress hasn’t been nearly as pronounced as that of Hughes.

Likewise, Lafreniere, with whom a portion of the fan base seems utterly disappointed because he hasn’t proven to be Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews or Jack Eichel out of the gate, has shown flashes of what he could become. Similar to Kakko’s, however, they have been interspersed between extended periods invisibility.

It’s crucial to keep pointing out that both kids’ young careers are products of the pandemic – Kakko’s rookie season cut short due to the sweeping lockdowns of COVID’s early days, and Lafreniere’s limited to 56 games last season. The idea that the Rangers could have given up on either player because they weren’t instant superstars in such an environment is the kind of thinking that would cost any GM his job.

The Rangers suffered from a cap issue last offseason and a problem with grit. Buchnevich had to be resigned to a costly extension which lowered his trade value. Multiple appealing offers for him apparently didn’t materialize, so Drury took what might have been the best one out there, adding size even if he knew he was giving up more talent than he was getting back.

Buchnevich, however, isn’t making it easy to swallow that right now, delivering performances like Friday’s two-goal, one-assist effort in a Washington Capitals beat 5-1. He’s tied for second on the Blues in points, is second with a plus-16 rating, kills penalties (which he also did in outstanding fashion last season with the Rangers) and brings an upbeat and positive influence to the dressing room. The Russia native’s stats the past two seasons: 33 goals, 49 assists and a plus-28 rating in 87 games.

It sounds just like what a team would expect from a No. 1, or 2 overall draft pick, doesn’t it? 2 overall draft pick, doesn’t it?

Buchnevich, will you prove to be better than Kakko, Lafreniere

Rangers will be patient and nurturing with their two prized wings talents, but neither one is legally allowed to buy a drink. However, the fate of the club’s concerted rebuilding effort likely hinges on Kakko and Lafreniere more than any other players brought in since the project began in February 2018 (OK, Fox is a noted exception). The fate of a team with multiple first-round picks is largely determined by their actions in the short time they have them.

So the pressure for both to become stars does exist and will start to increase, even if it’s not overwhelming right now. Kakko and Lafreniere were the obvious selections when the Rangers chose in 2019 and 2020, ones that any GM would have made had they been in the since-fired Jeff Gorton’s shoes at the time.

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers

Adding to that pressure, though, is the 75th overall pick in the 2013 draft who’s now wearing a Blue Note on his chest and performing like a rising star for a Stanley Cup hopeful in the Gateway City, setting what seems to be an ever-higher bar for the Rangers to replace his contributions. Buchnevich was sent away partly to make it possible for the Rangers to pay Kakko or Lafreniere. Will Buchnevich end up being the better player and not just the more valuable one?

For the sake of the Rangers’ future championship aspirations, and perhaps his own legacy running his hometown team, Drury had better hope not – especially when he might not have had any real choice in the matter.