Has The Brett Howden Experiment Gone Too Far?

The Rangers’ 4-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils yesterday revealed a concerning trend in the deployment of their young stars. It’s no secret that David Quinn took Brett Howden on as a “project” when he took the helm in 2018, giving him more ice time than his production warranted. Clearly, he sees promise in the young center and plays him in a variety of situations.

However, when is it time to say The Brett Howden Experiment has gone too far? Let’s specifically look at Brett Howden’s deployment in comparison to Kaapo Kakko.

Brett Howden vs. Kaapo Kakko

First, let’s clarify that there are inherent differences in how each player is deployed. Howden is a center and through Quinn’s system is more of a penalty killer. Kakko is a winger and his special teams talent is the powerplay.

Howden’s ceiling is likely a bottom-six center at best, while Kakko is gunning for top-six wing minutes. Despite those differences, to start the season, Howden averages more ice time and gets more advantageous zone starts.

Last season, Kakko averaged nearly a minute more of ice time than Howden. He also earned more points than Howden in four fewer games. However, he had a team-worst rating of -26. But young players are going to make mistakes in their rookie seasons. The only way to learn and grow into a better player is to play more NHL minutes.

So far in this condensed season, that has not been the case in Quinn’s deployment strategy. Grett Howden averages nearly three minutes more of ice time than Kaapo Kakko. Howden receives more offensive zone starts than Kakko as well. 

By the Numbers

In last night’s game against the Devils, there was a point where Howden played nearly 10 minutes before Kakko and Filip Chytil had each played five. The Rangers had a significant advantage in powerplays in this game, so realistically Kakko should have earned much more ice time in comparison to Howden.

Ultimately, Kakko ended up only playing around a minute and a half more than Howden in the game. But his line with Chytil and Phil Di Guiseppe greatly outperformed Howden’s. Kakko’s line ended the game with a CF% of 85% and Howden’s had a 31%. Yet 75% of Howden’s starts were in the offensive zone.

Yes, it is quite early on in the season. But it’s worth noting that Howden’s leash seems incredibly long compared to many other players on the Rangers. 

After a strong first period, it took Kakko a significant amount of time to see the ice again. He and Chytil fight tooth and nail for ice time but Howden receives multiple chances to make mistakes young players are bound to make. 

Quinn’s Contradictions

What makes the attachment to Howden even more perplexing is other roster changes made to start the year. Quinn was quick to break up the established defense pairings after a disaster of a home opener. Fox and Lindgren were separated and Tony DeAngelo was replaced with Brendan Smith.

Quinn seems to push a mindset that not all roster spots are guaranteed. He also seems to entrusts Brett Howden with so much night in and night out. 

After a tough rookie season, now is the time to let Kaapo Kakko play more minutes and allow him to work his way into a permanent top-six lineup spot. Messing around with his ice time and not deploying him in the proper situations will only stunt his growth. Just compare his night vs. the Devils with Jack Hughes’ performance. 

I think it’s about time Quinn focuses on helping Kakko, Chytil, and even Lafreniere grow into the NHL players they’re capable of becoming instead of experimenting with Brett Howden. 

Stats per Natural Stat Trick.