Rangers Can’t Rely on Just Buchnevich & Strome

So the New York Rangers have been carried offensively of late by…Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome?

Yes it’s true, that duo was the driving force for the Blueshirts over the past month, with each player having delivered eight goals and four assists in March. The identical surges represent a somewhat unlikely rise for both – and a development that will require a healthy dose of evaluation from the front office during the offseason.

Team management can’t help but be excited over what it’s seeing from Buchnevich, a third-round draft pick in 2013 who might finally be fully tapping into his obvious talent. Showing jump in his game and engagement in front of the net, the 23-year-old Russian seems to finally be taking the lessons of coach David Quinn to heart. He’s put aside the multiple benchings that were designed to elicit harder work and an end to his sense of entitlement with the most productive stretch of his three-year career.

“I’m really happy for him, he’s worked very hard,” said Rangers top center Mike Zibanejad, who recently has been a consistent linemate of Buchnevich’s. “He’s taken another step in his game. It’s fun to see and it’s fun to play with him.”

Surprising Strome Looking Like Rangers Steal

Strome’s ascendance is the more unexpected of the two. The fifth-overall pick in the 2011 Draft is just 25, but on his third team. A 50-point effort in his second NHL season with the New York Islanders turned out not to be a sign of things to come, as he topped out at 34 points over the next three seasons, the final of which led to him being traded to the Edmonton Oilers after 2016-17.

Dealt to the Rangers for Ryan Spooner in November in what looked like a swap of disappointing forwards, Strome has seemingly found a comfort zone under the bright lights of Broadway. Scoring all but one of his goals this season for the Blueshirts, Strome appears to have revived his career as a versatile top-nine forward who can play both center and wing.

It’s worth speculating whether Strome struggled under the weight of his lofty draft status, trying to live up to expectations that perhaps didn’t match his capabilities, and is now far enough away from the 2011 Draft that he can relax and just play. If so, the results are a lopsided trade for the Rangers, and an unexpected asset going forward.

New York Rangers Ryan Strome New Jersey Devils Cory Schneider
Rangers center Ryan Strome celebrates his goal against Devils goaltender Cory Schneider (AP Photo/ Bill Kostroun)

It’s the job of Gorton, however, to give pause to the enthusiasm and consider all sides of an equation – and Buchnevich and Strome present difficult ones.

Evaluating positive performance that occurs under little or no pressure can be tricky and deceiving. The Rangers have been effectively out of the playoff hunt for months, a team operating under the mandate of building for the future. There have been no big games, no critical points for which to push. Little has been expected of this club that’s looking to 2019-20 and beyond.

Plenty of players – and teams – have thrived in such late-season environments, with those performances often proving to be fool’s gold the next season. Viewing this situation through a very cynical lens, a case can be made that Buchnevich and Strome have taken advantage of the lower expectations to bolster their cases for NHL roster spots next season.

Can Rangers Count on Buchnevich, Strome Going Forward?

Buchnevich’s future was murky before the recent surge, his role with the rebuilding Rangers uncertain due to the bad habits that have plagued him since arriving from the KHL in 2016. The inherent danger in a player getting hot at the end of the season – especially during meaningless games – is assuming that the trend will simply continue into the following one. Does this represent Buchnevich’s career breakout, or just a final impression for 2018-19 that won’t last?

Ditto for Strome, who’s likely become aware that he’s now playing for his career. He was drafted high for a reason. Has he finally figured it out and become an effective NHL player, or did he need a largely pressure-free situation – for both he and his team – in order to thrive? That scenario, of course, won’t be repeating itself going forward.

Henrik Lundqvist Ryan Strome
New York Rangers forward Ryan Strome and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

For his part, it sounds as if Strome wants to be a part of a return to prominence for the Blueshirts.

“Obviously, with some guys being moved there was an opportunity, and I think I was one of the guys that really wanted to try to take advantage of it,” Strome said. “Five games left, and I still think there’s a lot to prove for me and a lot of guys to build for next year. I still think there’s more.

“As long as I come to the rink every day and do the right things and be a good teammate and have fun and work hard, hopefully this can be a home for a little while. I know obviously things can change, and it’s a business, as we know. They’re trying to make their right moves to get the team where they want it to be, and hopefully I’m a part of that.”

If such takes on Buchnevich and Strome come across as overtly negative, they are ones that Gorton and co. have to face this summer. Whether to bank on steady production next season from players who were question marks a month ago is the kind of decision that NHL GMs get paid to make – and end up owning, right or wrong.

Jeff Gorton
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Buchnevich, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, has given the front office more to think about with his efforts the past month. Strome, under contract at $3.1 million for one more season, has if nothing else built up his trade value.

Whether Buchnevich is now considered ready to permanently graduate to top-six status and Strome’s nice story means he’ll be a part of the long-term rebuilding of the roster are among many pressing questions facing management this summer. Though Gorton has asked the fans for patience, decisions on the future of these two players are ones with which he can’t afford to take his time.

Buchnevich and Strome have made their cases; the former for a longer-term deal and the latter to stick around for at least another season. Soon, it will be up to Gorton to rule on them.