Grit vs. Skill: Tanner Glass vs. Pavel Buchnevich

After losing 4-1 to the Montreal Canadiens on March 4, the Rangers recalled Tanner Glass from the their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack. Rather than attribute the loss to the Rangers playing poorly––since the Canadiens outshot the Rangers 35-27, won 63% of faceoffs, and had Carey Price in net––much of the blame for the loss was placed on the Rangers lack of “grit” and “toughness.” According to the Rangers, the difference makers in that game were Dwight King, Andrew Shaw, and Steve Ott.

Since recalling Tanner Glass, he has played in six games, and has recorded a goal and an assist. Many view having a tough player like Glass in the lineup as a deterrent. In his first game back with the Rangers against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Glass put his toughness on display early by fighting Luke Witkowski. Later that period, Gabriel Dumont of the Lightning boarded Rangers’ defenseman Steven Kampfer––something that Glass’s presence should have deterred, right?

Getting past the argument that Glass is an “effective deterrent” and focusing on his capabilities as a fourth line player on the Rangers highlights that the Rangers have better personnel options––particularly earlier this season, the team emphasized playing with speed and skill.

Players like Brandon Pirri, Oscar Lindberg, Jimmy Vesey, Jesper Fast, and Michael Grabner have all been featured on the fourth line for the Rangers––demonstrating the team’s forward depth with four balanced, offensively capable lines. By having a fourth line that can maintain possession, not only does the team have secondary scoring, but the first line gets more offensive zone starts.

When Glass joined the Rangers for the 2014-15 season and became a fourth line staple, the first line consistently found themselves starting in the defensive zone. Through his time with the Rangers, this trend has persisted.

Unfortunately, when the team struggled this season––while dealing with a number of key injuries––the Rangers decided to recall Glass, stifling the fourth line that flourished so much during the time that he spent in the AHL.

If the Rangers were looking to add a player with grit and size to the fourth line, as well as a player who could kill penalties in Grabner and Fast’s absences, they could have recalled Marek Hrivik. In 16 games with the Rangers this season, Hrivik had a 5v5 rel CF% of 6.12. While this is a small sample, his play in the AHL has continued to demonstrate his capabilities.

Instead Glass was recalled and the fourth line’s potential has been stunted. In 2014-15, his first season with the Rangers, Glass was second to last in 5v5 rel CF% at -7.68 through 66 games––only ahead of James Sheppard, who only spent 14 games in New York and was frequently scratched in favor of Glass. The next season, Glass was third to last at -6.78, ahead of Daniel Paille and Jarret Stoll (Paille played 12 games with the Rangers, Stoll played 29). Through his first two seasons with New York, Glass’ 5v5 rel CF% only exemplified the impediment he was to the Rangers’ possession––which apparently did not influence the decision to recall him.

As each injured player has returned to the play, Glass has remained­­ in the lineup, with Coach Alain Vigneault benching Puempel, Pirri, and most recently rookie Pavel Buchnevich in the process.

Buchnevich, Pirri, and Puempel join a long list of undeserving forwards to be scratched in favor of Glass since he joined the Rangers, including Anthony Duclair, Emerson Etem, Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, James Sheppard, Victor Stalberg, and Lee Stempniak.

Pavel Buchnevich, a self-described “cerebral player,” has proven so far in his cumulative NHL, AHL, and KHL experiences that he has excellent vision, a lethal shot, and overall exceptional potential.

Through his 34 games this season (his appearances being limited due to being scratched and injured), Buchnevich has 19 points (8 goals/11 assists). Buchnevich 5v5 CF% is 49.42, fifth among the current roster of forwards. Buchnevich’s 5v5 xGF60 is 2.85––tied for first on the team with Mika Zibanejad––and his 5v5 rel CF% is 1.89.

While Tanner Glass’s recent stint appears to be more promising than his last two seasons (with a CF% of 45.3, placing him behind J.T. Miller and ahead of Jimmy Vesey), it is far too small of a sample, and so cannot conclude whether or not Glass is more deserving than Buchnevich––or anyone else in the current lineup for that matter. Rather, Glass’s performance with the Rangers––let alone throughout his entire career––has been reasonably consistent, with this short string of games being higher than average.

Now that Fast and Grabner have returned, the Rangers have an abundance of penalty killers. The Rangers instead need help on the power play, which Buchnevich provides. As for playing a more physical style, the Rangers have players who can play a grinding style, like Rick Nash and Chris Kreider. In fact, of the players that do play physically, like Jesper Fast, they often hit to get possession of the puck to contribute to the offense.

As of March 17, according to Micah Blake McCurdy’s model, the Rangers’ have a 99.97% chance of making the playoffs. The Rangers should be focusing on the playoffs by utilizing the best possible lineup and combinations––ensuring the team qualifies for the playoffs and the players are adequately prepared. As it stands, the Rangers’ coaching staff is not assembling their best lineup.

Vigneault has pointed to Buchnevich’s inconsistency to justify his decision to scratch him without any evidence, yet he has not given him the opportunity to prove otherwise. And in the game in which both Buchnevich and Glass played, Vigneault preferred to play Glass as an extra attacker when the team was down in the final minutes of a game.

Contrary to Vigneault’s beliefs, a player does not develop by sitting in the press box, so being scratched for a player that has not impressed in his three years with the Rangers’ is indefensible at this point. Unfortunately, Glass will likely appear in the lineup for the remainder of the season and the playoffs––regardless of his of history of lackluster playoff performances. And when Buchnevich is in the lineup, who will be scratched (if not Glass)––Vesey? Fast? Lindberg?

Glass was surprisingly a healthy scratch on Saturday against the Minnesota Wild­­, with Buchnevich playing on the fourth line in his place. Not only did Buchnevich have a primary assist on the Rangers’ second goal of the night, scored by Jimmy Vesey, but the combination of Buchnevich-Lindberg-Vesey led the forwards in CF% (Lindberg 68.75, Buchnevich 64.29, Vesey 52.63). But as history has shown, Vigneault will find ways to return Glass to the lineup––even if it is at the expense of the thriving fourth line and the team’s ultimate success.

The statistics do not just record how a player performs or what a player did, but can indicate what a player or team will do. The eye test has shown how talented Buchnevich is and if that is not enough, there are a multitude of statistics that demonstrate it. Glass, on the other hand, neither impresses on the ice nor through statistics.

Both Rangers’ management and coaching have to look critically at this roster and recognize the disservice they are doing the team. Focusing on Glass’s current stint rather than his career, and playing him instead of Buchnevich is short-sighted. Furthermore, Buchnevich’s “inconsistency” is not a justifiable reason to scratch him. By not questioning Vigneault, it condones his methodology of benching young players in an effort to hold them accountable and risking their development.

*All data sourced from Corsica.hockey

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