New York Rangers youngster Brett Howden started hot prior to leveling off this season. Where does he fit in moving forward?
The 20-year-old is currently on the IR and hasn’t appeared in a game since Jan. 29. He is expected to be back in the next 7-10 days. If the reports hold true, his return will most likely be for either the matchup against the Washington Capitals on March 3 or the Dallas Stars on March 5.
As we are going into the dwindling hours of the NHL Trade Deadline, two forwards are at the center of it all, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. Both are beloved fan favorites, but there were those before them that have ultimately been moved. I believe that no matter what happens between now and Monday’s deadline, the New York Rangers will benefit from whatever move is made. Whatever fate both Zucc and Hayes endure, there can still be upside for the Rangers.
With that being said, once Howden returns to the ice, all eyes will be on him to replicate a performance similar to the beginning of the season. A start that wowed many and surprised just about everybody. He put up 13 points in his first 25 games, won 51.4 percent of his draws and had 26 shots on goal. But over the last 23 games since then, the burner has been completely shut off. Howden has only contributed two points since and is -11 on the ice.
Before his injury on Jan.29, Howden was in a rapid decline of playtime. In the five games, before he went down with a knee injury, he averaged 7:43 of ice time per game. This pales in comparison to the previous 44 games at 15:49 per game. After this trade deadline, expect the amount of playtime to increase, but not by leaps.
Howden had played his best alongside Jimmy Vesey and Jesper Fast this season. But, for his return, this shouldn’t be an expected line for him. Vesey has primarily been bumped to the first line alongside Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
So where would he fit in, when both Zucc and Hayes find themselves on new teams? Obviously, things will have to be re-arranged, but Howden has played his best from the centerman position.
The bottom two lines have both Lias Andersson and Boo Nieves centering them. If the return after the trade deadline consists of draft picks and a possible high-value prospect, Nieves would be bumped back down to Hartford. Andersson would remain, but it would be a see-saw between Howden and him on who will be commanding the bottom six.
Nieves, if not returned back to Hartford, could be pushed out to the right wing on the fourth line. Despite Andersson having a successful season in the AHL, he has not had as much luck with the Rangers. He is on a drought of his own with only four points in his 22 appearances.
Howden could alternate between the third and fourth lines. This is again his rookie season in the NHL and many weren’t expecting him to even make the roster for this many games. But he has made it this far and has deserved a shot to finish out this season. This season was the first of this rebuilding phase, and every player needs to show there worth. Up and down the Rangers roster are players fighting for a spot to suit up again in 2019-20.
Though the drought Howden endured was obviously not a good thing, it shows that he can improve going forward. His comeback will only strengthen the Rangers roster, and add another forward to help Brandon Smith go back to the blueline. With Adam McQuaid also being among Zuccarello and Hayes in the trade mill, the Rangers may need Smith as another D-man.
There are only a handful of weeks left until this underwhelming season comes to a close. As the rebuild will bleed into another year, the emphasis of relying on the youth movement to lead the New York Rangers back to another Stanley Cup appearance is still relevant.
That youth movement includes Brett Howden among the rest. With Zibanejad having a career season and holding on to the true number one center role, and the revitalized play of Strome, there is room to learn.
That is the primary principle of a rebuild, learning. Learning from mistakes, learning from hardship and learning to make improvements to a once established and contending franchise.