zibanejad buchnevich shattenkirk zuccarello
Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

I know I’ve been absentee for a while – the rest of life has been kicking my butt a bit lately – but there’s been some fiery debate amongst bloggers and fans recently concerning our favorite Russian winger (not counting young Vitali, who is outside of our jurisdiction for favorites).

Pavel Buchnevich has been a polarizing player for some time now, with his playing time under AV, and his playing ability broadly, being somewhat controversial. Proponents think he’s the real deal, detractors think he’s overrated, but one way or another this needs to be a breakout year for him. If it is, he’s likely to be a top-6 winger around whom we’ll be building the future. If it isn’t we’re in a sticky spot as far as building the next contending Rangers team goes. It’s in this team’s best interest for him to succeed, and with the David Quinn era just getting underway, expectations are high on a lot of levels.

Let’s talk about Quinn first, because there’s a specter hanging over this debate and it’s him. Quinn was tapped to lead this team behind the bench for a couple of reasons, but one of the big ones is his ability to develop young players into complete packages. In particular, Buchnevich’s name popped up in a few ways, some having to do with the AV-related communication issues, some having to do with the aforementioned big-picture projections for this team, some having to do with who’s going to be left after this year’s selloff, and so on.

Quinn scratching Buchnevich, and the rather terse explanation of why – I’m paraphrasing here but it’s somewhere along the lines of “he hasn’t been good enough” – raises a lot of questions about equity, evaluative fairness, and relative performance among the forward group that touches a nerve for a lot of people. Meanwhile, significantly less skilled players like Jesper Fast and Jimmy Vesey are getting top-six minutes. That’s not a slight against Fast/Vesey, who have been playing well. Then there’s the Cody McLeod issue.

Let’s start with Buch himself. He ranks third from last in TOI for forwards, although a slight asterisk on that because he’s played three fewer games than most everyone else (forgive me, but I can’t crunch the TOI/GP for every forward). That’s not so great. His primary points per 60 minutes of hockey played of 1.5 is fourth however among forwards, behind Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, and Brett Howden. Points aren’t everything of course, although at the end of the day you need the biscuit in the basket, so let’s look at the underlyings.

Relative to his teammates in shot attempt for percentage, he’s -5.16 below (fourth from last), but leads in relative goals for percentage at 20.48 percent. As far as scoring chances represented by xGF percentage goes, he is dead last at -10.2%. So he’s having a pretty damn weird season so far, and it’s not entirely unwarranted to say he maybe needs to be better. That’s a huge maybe though.

Because when we look at Fast, who –regardless of what your personal like/dislike of him– really does not belong on one of the top-two lines, we’ve also got a weird season. Fast is last among forwards in primary points per 60 at 0.35 (Lettieri and McLeod don’t even register because we’re looking at primary points at evens, and they have none). When we go to the more fancy stats we find we’re looking at a picture that’s also muddy, but maybe less so and in different ways than Buch. Fast leads the team in relCF% at 9.03, which is excellent, ties Howden for fourth at an 8.06% relGF%, and also leads the team in relxGF% at 10.16%. So here we’ve got more or less what we kind of could tell – he’s more than solid but has absolutely no scoring touch. An argument can be made for “needs to be better” here as well.

For comparison’s sake, let’s also look at McLeod’s and Vesey’s numbers. McLeod has no P1/60, his relative CF% is third lowest at -5.35, his relative GF% is -55.0 (!!!) and his relative xGF% is one spot above Buch at -7.18. Vesey is obviously a better player: his P1/60 (1.07), relCF% (0.11), relGF% (-17.62), and relxGF% (2.83) are all ahead of McLeod. He’s actually made a decent name for himself, in that he’s consistent and unconfusing, but not necessarily a superstar.

As a team, we’re ranging from a 53.76 CF% to a 39.04% (Fast to Spooner), a 60.0% to 16.67 GF% (Chytil to Lettieri), and a 58.81% to a 40.85 xGF% (Lettieri to Buchnevich). Points wise we’ve got 1.79 to a 0.35 P1/60 (Kreider to Fast). That is all over the place, both in terms of numbers and who’s putting them up. This team is weird as hell, and is probably not going to be great, but the number one thing that sticks out to me is that nobody is playing consistently. It’s also early and these number fluctuation a lot.

Going off all of that, it seems weird then that Buch would be the guy who gets scratched twice consecutively, especially given the explicitly mandated need to develop him further. There’s obviously the notion that he’s not being scratched in lieu of Cody McLeod, he’s being scratched in his own right, but the problem with that is when McLeod is the next worst forward on the team and Buchnevich is the one sitting it out, well, he kind of is getting scratched for a bruiser who doesn’t score.

Even if you, for whatever reason, want to cordon off McLeod into a category separate from skill players, let’s talk about Ryan Spooner, who has been visibly bad. Young and old alike can recognize that he simply isn’t a great player despite his occasional flashes of almost-brilliance, and while that’s fine for a rebuilding team, it certainly doesn’t put him out of the debate for who takes a game off.

There’s also the issue of sticking with a winning lineup. Obviously, there’s a certain calculus a coach needs to consider on this kind of thing – do you want to seemingly punish guys who helped push the team to a victory, or do you want to retool the lines and what have you as if it didn’t happen? The thing is, where this team is at, the record doesn’t matter really, and that’s crucial to understanding why or why not Buchnevich is a healthy scratch. So much of player development, which is our number one priority right now, is being able to look beyond a win or a loss.

Sure, when you’re pushing to get into the playoffs at any cost a win’s a win, but that’s not where we’re at. Quinn needs to be able to say to the team “hey, we won, but some guys need a chance back in the lineup, so we’re making adjustments,” and more importantly, he needs to get the room to buy in. So much of his job is managing the strange vibes floating around this team right now, and communicating not only to individual players but the group as a whole.

Then there’s the practice issue. I’m not going to go full debate club and say that any appeal to authority is wrong, because I think that specialized knowledge and the relative veil of ignorance we live behind as fans are two very important caveats to any analysis. But I will say this: effort in practice is such a subjective, fraught concept that it’s maybe not the best way to determine who’s in and who’s out. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to put together all of the ways in which “I like what he did in practice” is problematic, but it needs to be said that effort and commitment are deeply challenging things to deal with from any evaluative standpoint. Let’s not throw it away entirely, but let’s remember that when a coach says things like that, we don’t need to take it without question.

Lastly, there’s a philosophical difference on the matter of tough love vs unconditional playing time. This is an area in which reasonable people can always disagree, but to me, benching a guy for a game or two to get him frustrated and ready to push harder is counterintuitive, especially when that player has avowed issues with trust in coaching. It brings about a self-aware manipulative dynamic to the relationship between player and coach. I think I’ve made my stance clear: let a young guy work his issues out on the ice, build up some confidence, and get angry and motivated on an organic level instead of doing some Machiavellian mood manipulation.

A big part of this is the logjam we’ve got and the impending fire sale that’s yet to happen. That’s a conversation for another day. Buchnevich is a blip on the radar in the larger problem of evaluating who’s who to this team. He’s not the problem, or, if he is, he’s a component part of the problem and not the whole thing. He’s not even like the foot of the Voltron robot.

This conversation maybe doesn’t need to end, because it’s certainly not going to go away until he posts a 60-point season, but we need to consider how worthwhile it is to debate performance and value. There’s going to be a lot of weird things going on this season, a lot of questionable (in that we are literally able to question them, without any broader value judgements attached) coaching decisions, and a lot of up and down performances. Let’s not blow out a fuse on something this small, let’s cool off a bit, and let’s try and be self-evaluative about what things we should and shouldn’t be arguing over.


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