In a season in which the rebuilding New York Rangers have committed to finding out about their young talent base by putting them into important situations, it appears that coach David Quinn has made up his mind – at least for the foreseeable future – about a pair of centers after just 17 games.
Brett Howden and Lias Andersson, a pair of 21-year-olds with a combined 99 games of NHL experience, have formed polar opposite opinions of their play in their coach’s mind despite both delivering little production in 2019-20.
It’s Howden who has emerged as a seemingly indispensable member of the lineup, averaging nearly 16 minutes per game and currently manning the middle on an effective line with Brendan Lemieux and second-overall draft pick Kaapo Kakko (who’s recently struggled with the flu bug). Management loves Howden’s instincts, hockey sense and well-rounded game, clear factors in the former first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning making the team out of camp last season and being given a big role again this season.
For all of that, however, Howden has 8 goals and 19 assists in 83 career games. He’s hardly been an offensive dynamo, yet has not played a game for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford.
Acquired as part of the Ryan McDonagh-J.T. Miller blockbuster trade in Feb. 2018, Howden has two goals and two assists this season. He’s been close to even in the plus/minus department, sitting at minus-2, and yet has recorded one point – an assist – in his last nine games.
That can’t be easy to watch for Andersson, the seventh overall pick by the Rangers in the 2017 draft, who has been relegated almost exclusively to fourth-line duty in his 16 games, averaging just 9:53 of ice time. Quinn has made it clear that he needs to see more from Andersson if he wants to see more significant minutes.
Andersson, Howden Have Been Equally Unproductive
“He needs to earn more ice time,” the coach said. (from ‘Rangers’ Lias Andersson Dilemma May Need Trade Resolution’, New York Post – 11/10/19) Quinn’s stance on not simply handing out ice time to highly-regarded young players has been consistent through his season-plus at the helm, but this case evokes at least some head-scratching in regard to his insistence on a merit system.
The fact remains that the Rangers need to find out what they have in all of their youngsters – perhaps none more so than Andersson, whose high selection raised plenty of eyebrows at the time. (from ‘Rangers’ Lias Andersson Striving to be Better Two-Way Player’, New York Post – 9/25/19) No, a player’s drafted position shouldn’t be the determining factor in whether he’s given significant minutes, but how is Andersson expected to prove himself playing sparsely on a fourth line that’s mostly contained energy players like Brendan Smith, Greg McKegg and pugilist Micheal Haley?
Andersson’s numbers haven’t been good lately, as he’s a minus-seven over the past five games, but that stretch contained a pair of wipeout losses – 6-2 to the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 4 and Thursday’s 9-3 rout at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning – in which few Rangers didn’t turn in putrid performances.
Howden was only a combined minus-1 in those two games, but again, he’s been skating with Lemieux and the surging Kakko. (from ‘Rangers’ Unique Approach to Kaapo Kakko is Paying Off’, New York Post – 11/13/19) So is there a double standard at play with Andersson?
It’s impossible to know, of course. To be sure, the pair’s underlying numbers don’t exactly support the idea that Howden has been significantly better than Andersson – and in fact may show that he’s actually been worse. With the qualifier that Corsi and Fenwick are imperfect statistics, a look at both shows that Andersson might indeed have a legitimate grievance.
Per Natural Stat Trick, Andersson’s Corsi For percentage is 40.10 while his Fenwick For is 42.17. The Rangers have generated 19 high-danger scoring chances and allowed 20 while Andersson has been on the ice.
Howden? He’s at 38.92 CF% and 40.86 FF%, and the HDCs are perhaps the most revealing. The Rangers have managed 33 such chances for and given up 51 when he’s been on – and this while playing with considerably better linemates – with the caveat that Howden’s line is also ostensibly going up against better players than Andersson’s as well.
Quinn Has Stuck With Other Young Players
So what gives? There’s a clear lack of comfort for Quinn with Andersson, and the opposite with Howden. The coach demands accountability, production and diligent play as the key to getting ice time. Yet he’s stuck with Howden and Kakko along with young defensemen Tony DeAngelo and Libor Hajek, among others, through their growing pains, employing his mix of tough love and optimism after tough games, making it clear through the media that he’s behind them.
Such is the case of Filip Chytil, the 20-year-old now thriving as the second-line center after yet another demotion to the AHL to start the season. Quinn has never given up on the 21st pick in the 2017 draft throughout the rocky start to his NHL career, and the coach has been rewarded with six goals in eight games from a more confident Chytil since earning an Oct. 28 recall after playing well in his stint with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
In contrast, Andersson has seemingly never been able to work his way into Quinn’s good graces. The Rangers haven’t sent him down – yet – and so he plays on, largely in limbo, unable to make much of an impact. Quinn feels he hasn’t played well enough to warrant a bigger role, so Andersson remains on the fourth unit, attempting to impress the coach in limited duty while playing mostly with the least skilled forwards on the roster.
Does Quinn not see a potential NHL regular in Andersson? Questions about Andersson’s skating and offensive ability abounded during the 2017 draft. Maybe the coach doesn’t detect a particularly high ceiling in this particular player as compared to say, Chytil, about whose talent level he’s often raved?
Whatever the case, while Quinn has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt behind the Blueshirts bench so far, there does appear to be more than a hint of inconsistency in how he’s handled Andersson as compared to Howden, Chytil, Hajek, etc. This season is supposed to be about development and finding out what the organization has to work with. With that being the case, the question of what to do with Andersson should be coming to a head very soon.
Whether a fair reason or not for Andersson to be given time – and whether or not it fits with Quinn’s philosophy – the Rangers need to get a read on a player they drafted in the top 10. It’s naive to think that such considerations don’t factor into who gets chances to stick and who doesn’t, whether it’s the NHL or any other professional league.
Along with Howden’s seemingly safe spot, the rise of Ryan Strome has complicated matters in the middle – the 26-year-old’s contributions are simply too good this season to remove him from the lineup. Swirling rumors that Andersson could be part of a trade for the rights to former Edmonton Oilers winger Jesse Puljujärvi also can’t be easy for Andersson to deal with on a daily basis.
Amidst all of that, Quinn should strongly consider giving Andersson a better chance to prove himself, and move him off the fourth line for a more extended audition. Howden, for all the talk of his intangibles, has hardly translated that into much nightly production. Whether Howden deserves a temporary demotion to the AHL is up for debate, but he’s hardly done enough to remain ensconced in the lineup game after game and never be scratched.
At the very least, Quinn should try flipping them in the lineup while top center Mika Zibanejad remains out with an injury, playing Andersson on the third line while dropping Howden to the fourth.
Quinn, after all, liberally moved players around in the lineup and scratched anyone and everyone without a second thought last season, often under the auspices of simply needing to get a look at other young players. Why the Howden-Andersson situation appears exempt from that approach is anyone’s guess.
Again, if 2019-20 is about featuring the kids, that’s exactly what Quinn should be doing with Andersson. Ending the mystery of why Howden plays a key role and Andersson doesn’t could alleviate this nagging issue once and for all – and might even allow Andersson to prove why the Rangers were so high on him in the first place.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.