By Sean Hartnett
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Plug him in on any line and teammates will respond with elevated play. You could call the 24-year-old Swede “Mr. Fix-It.”
“It seems every time I put Jesper on a line, that line seems to be going,” Vigneault said in late March. “He seems to be a big part of any line that I put him on.”
On Thursday, teammates recognized Fast with the 2015-16 Players’ Player Award. Since the 1958-59 season, Rangers teammates have annually given the award to the teammate who best exemplifies the ideals of being a team player. He is the first European-born player to receive the award since Reijo Ruotsalainen in 1984-85.
Fast has enjoyed a breakthrough season. He has established career highs in games played (77), goals (10), assists (19), points (29) and game-winning goals (three). Serving in a key penalty-killing role, his 2:11 average shorthanded TOI is first among all Rangers forwards.
“He’s got tremendous hockey sense – both defensively and offensively,” Vigneault said during last year’s playoffs. “He can read the game really well, and he works like an SOB. He works and he works and he works. He just doesn’t stop, and that’s what makes him a really effective player.”
Teammates praise Fast for his fierce competitiveness, intelligence in all three zones and straight-ahead, honest style of play.
“I love playing with that guy,” Derick Brassard said of Fast in February. “He does everything well. You know what to expect from him. He doesn’t cheat, he goes right through you, and he’s got some offense in him.”
There is an offensive upside that’s starting to bloom in Fast’s game. His 19 even-strength assists rank fourth on the Blueshirts, and he’s tied for sixth on the roster with 29 even-strength points.
J.T. Miller has noticed Fast’s natural skill shining through.
“I’ve seen the way he can play. He has a lot of skill,” Miller told WFAN.com. “He played on my line a lot in Hartford. Here, the roles are a little different. You can see his skill start to come out a little bit. His production and chances are up. Obviously, his hard work pays off, and he’s a big part of whatever line he’s on. Teams can win more games with guys like him.”
One thing that might not change any time soon is his shy personality.
“He’s so quiet all the time,” Miller said. “It’s just how he is. He’s out there for business and hard work. When we talk, he’s not talking your ear off.”
Although Fast is a low-key guy in the Rangers’ dressing room, his game speaks loudly on the ice. The highest praise you can give a hockey player is to say he makes teammates better on the ice. For the Rangers, Fast is a forward who does exactly that through intelligence, positioning and unselfish characteristics.
Lately, he’s jelled with regular linemates Eric Staal and Kevin Hayes. It seems wherever you put Fast, he’s got the Midas touch.
The Rangers also announced Henrik Lundqvist as this season’s Team MVP, as voted on by media members. He has now won the award for a franchise-record eighth time. The 2015-16 Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award will also be presented prior to Thursday’s game against the Islanders.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey