The New York Rangers rebuild has been nothing short of a thrill-ride rollercoaster filled with the highs of new stardom to the lows of home-grown talent departing the franchise. Amongst the highs and lows were Brett Howden’s arrival to New York and the lingering lack of center depth that plagues the team’s progress.
Mika Zibanejad is undoubtedly the answer for the Rangers’ top center position following his 74-point season and budding chemistry with Artemi Panarin. The rest of the center depth consists of Howden, Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome, Lias Andersson, Boo Nieves and in some capacity Vladislav Namestnikov. As young as they are, that’s a middling group of players at a position that’s become so pivotal towards success.
Following the trade deadline, the Rangers struggled mightily to keep pucks out of their own net. They posted the sixth-worst goals forwarded percentage between the trade deadline and the conclusion to the season. The departure of Kevin Hayes was felt immediately, leaving the Rangers without a coveted two-way center role on the roster. With only Zibanejad to rely on, the Rangers will need to look towards their unproven youngsters to fill their roster holes.
Among those who are up for the second-line center spot, Howden may have the best toolkit to immediate succeed at the position due to his two-way versatility.
Strome and Chytil are considered the favorites to slot in at second-line center, even if both have been utilized on the wing. Strome’s 18-goal, 33-point season with the Rangers was a pleasant surprise, but his 22.5 shooting percentage is well-above the sustainable rate. His scoring pace of .52 points-per-game is unlikely to be met again, even with the Rangers revamped offense. Strome can certainly be relied on in limited situations, but to expect a repeat to his 2018-19 season is outlandish.
All three of Strome, Chytil and Howden posted negative possession numbers through the season, but that’s bound to happen when you’re on the sixth-worst team in the league. Both Chytil and Howden posted 23 points in their inaugural NHL seasonds, but Chytil looked far more offensively gifted. The Czech Republic-native has consistently been a shoot-first kind of player, evident of his 11 goals this past season. Unfortunately, he was also a consistent defensive liability, which became an even larger problem when he lined up at center.
Among the three, Howden remains the only natural center while the other two offer more positional versatility. This past season, 41 blocked shots and 60 hits were second only to Zibanejad amongst Rangers’ centers. Howden was also the most responsible among the three with the puck on his stick. Chytil posted 42 giveaways this past year while Strome sat at 37. Howden only logged 28, which was top among the Rangers’ centers.
Chytil may have the toolkit to become an offensively gifted center/winger, but Howden boasts the immediate assets that can develop towards a responsible two-way center. That sort of reliability and responsibility is the exact player the Rangers will need as they develop their plethora of rookie talent.
Quick on the Draw
The most prominent aspect of Howden’s game that puts him above the rest are his talents on the faceoff dot. When Hayes was a Ranger, he was relied on heavily to gain possession off faceoffs. That’s the kind of responsibility you’d want to hand off to your second-line center.
Howden was second only to Zibanejad this past season in the faceoff dot. His faceoff percentage of 48.42% was well above Strome (47.16%) and Chytil (38.86%). Howden was second only to Anthony Cirelli among rookies in faceoff percentage. What’s even more impressive is Howden’s 55.88% in faceoffs on the man-advantage, which was good for top-ten in the NHL among rookies.
Howden could have finished with an even better percentage on the faceoff dot before missing a month due to injury. Prior to his MCL sprain, he led the team with a 50.28% success rate in the faceoff circle. Howden’s 13 points in the first 20 games last year made an immediate mark on head coach David Quinn’s trust in him. Over that time, Howden was playing just over 15 minutes a night and had 62 offensive-zone starts, just two less than Hayes at the time. If injury and consistency issues hadn’t derailed Howden’s season, he would have been the easy favorite for the number two job following the trade deadline.
Quinn’s decision at second-line center will likely be a fluid movement of players as he tries to find the right fit. That being said, Howden surprised many when he made the team out of camp last year, so who’s to say he doesn’t have a couple more surprises up his sleeve for this coming season.