Young Winger's Offensive Skills Far Outweigh His Defensive Deficiencies

By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers punched their ticket to the playoffs Tuesday night after securing the point they needed in San Jose, but one of their most promising offensive talents has been relegated to a part-time role in the run-in to the playoffs.

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Head coach Alain Vigneault scratched highly touted 21-year-old winger Pavel Buchnevich at SAP Center, instead opting to dress seldom-used depth winger Matt Puempel. Although Puempel recorded an assist in 8:19 of TOI against the Sharks, he has only registered two points in his last 10 games.

The Rangers claimed Puempel off the waiver wire scrap heap on Nov. 21 because they were suffering through an injury crisis. After arriving from Ottawa, the 24-year-old has given the Blueshirts decent production in a limited, 10-minute-per-game role by recording nine points in 24 games – but his chances of becoming an NHL regular are murky.

Buchnevich’s talent is clear and obvious. While he has much to learn on the defensive end of the ice, he can be a game-changer when the puck is on his stick. He possesses a terrific set of hands, lightning speed, an array of one-on-one moves and an ability to test opposing netminders with cannon drives.

Pavel Buchnevich

The Rangers’ Pavel Buchnevich skates against the New Jersey Devils on March 21, 2017, at the Prudential Center. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

With just five games separating the Rangers from the playoffs, Vigneault must do everything in his power to get the highly skilled Russian up to speed because the payoff could be tremendous.

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The 6-foot-2 winger has recorded 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) through the first 37 games of his rookie season. His 2.46 points per 60 minutes rank fourth on the Rangers and just a shade below Chris Kreider (2.48) and Kevin Hayes (2.47). Among NHL skaters to play at least 400 minutes in five-on-five situations this season, Buchnevich’s 2.39 P/60 is tied for 13th best in the league.

On St. Patrick’s Day, Vigneault spoke of his faith in Buchnevich and stated that he would be getting his fair share of chances. Since then, Buchnevich has been scratched in three of seven games and was taken out of the lineup after a particularly impressive showing against the Devils on March 21.

“He’s had some good games lately,” Vigneault said on March 17. “It’s just that inconsistency with a few plays that we need him to be a little bit better, but he is going to play. There’s a lot of hockey left. We’ve got a lot of faith in his skill level and the way he can play.”

It’s difficult to understand why Puempel dressed in San Jose over Buchnevich – or why fellow rookie Jimmy Vesey has been undroppable. Vesey’s offensive game has gone cold lately. The 23-year-old left wing has managed just two points (one goal, one assist) in past 15 games. Vesey has only missed one game this season due to an upper-body injury, back on Dec. 8.

With the Rangers’ entry to the playoffs secured, Vigneault could opt to rest some of his worn-down forwards in the final five regular season games. This could afford Buchnevich significant minutes to impress and prove he can be sound enough in the defensive end to satisfy Vigneault. Despite not being the most reliable defensive forwards in their earliest years, J.T. Miller and Hayes eventually earned Vigneault’s trust by working hard to become dependable two-way forwards.

It’s all about risk and reward. Unfortunately for Buchnevich, back spasms this season cost him 31 games that could have allowed him to get a better handle on Vigneault’s defensive demands. There’s certainly risk that Buchnevich brings to the table with his unpolished defensive zone coverage, but his skill far outweighs the blemishes in his game.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey