The personnel deployed by David Quinn in Thursday’s overtime in Buffalo and his subsequent clarification of his reasoning represents the ultimate essence of this coach’s guiding principles.
“You have to let the eye test determine who plays hockey, not where they were drafted, not their resume,” Quinn said when asked why he went with Colin Blackwell on the third shift of the extra session. “What happens in this game is that we get so caught up in where people are drafted and hype about people. But I don’t give two craps about that right now.
“We want to win hockey games and he was the best option. How did it work out?”
The question was posed rhetorically after Blackwell, on with freshman pros Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller, created a Jack Eichel turnover and then sent Lafreniere in with a lovely two-on-one feed for the 3-2 winner at 2:47. That sends the Rangers into Saturday’s Garden match against the Penguins at 2-4-1.
But the quote…that explains it all, does it not?
Explains why, in his first two years, Quinn had scratched the likes of Filip Chytil and Pavel Buchnevich, or assigned them to the fourth line. Explains why Lias Andersson didn’t automatically qualify for a sweater or a top-nine assignment. Explains why Kaapo Kakko has not been awarded an immediate top-six berth or guaranteed time on the power play. Explains why Julien Gauthier is scratched four straight times while Blackwell and Philip DiGiuseppe get to play.
Players have to earn their time, the inexperienced and experienced, alike. Of course veterans with track records are given more leeway or more time in which to turn their games around. But there’s an expiration date on that, too, or maybe you overlooked the fact that Chris Kreider on Thursday was dropped both to the third line and the second power play unit, the latter likely for the first time since he joined the Rangers for good three weeks into the 2013-14 season.
Everyone is in a hurry for the kids to take over primary roles and for the prospects to become players. Guess who leads the Rangers in even-strength ice time through the opening seven games? Twenty-two year-old Adam Fox followed by the 21-year-old Miller, that’s who.
Competent work on the defensive side of the puck is necessary in order to get minutes. This is hardly unique to Quinn or the Rangers. During a conversation with Mike Bossy on Friday that had started on an entirely different topic, No. 22 talked about breaking in with the Islanders under Al Arbour in 1977-78.
“That was still a veteran team with players like Eddie Westfall, Bert Marshall, Billy MacMillan, Garry Howatt, guys who did not care if they scored a goal all year,” Bossy, who was regarded as a one-way player, said. “For them, and for Al, it was about being responsible defensively.
“My first year, even longer than that, I didn’t get on for defensive-zone face-offs, I was never on for the final minute of a period, I didn’t play much if we protecting a one-goal lead late in games. I recognized very quickly that if there was ever a time for me to learn to play defense, that was it, because if I didn’t, I just wasn’t going to play all that much.”
Quinn’s work with Chytil seems to have taken. The coach’s work with Buchnevich, who has been the team’s most engaged and effective forward through the opening two weeks, seems to have taken. The work with Kakko, who received a season-low 9:55 of ice time on Thursday, is in progress. But this: Kakko has gotten only 3:34 less time at even-strength than Kreider through the first seven games.
There is not quite enough time to go around for forwards who aren’t on either the power play or penalty kill. And, by the way, there is not enough time for forwards on the second unit if the PP1 routinely stays on the ice for 1:45 of a two-minute advantage, as it did in Thursday’s victory and has been doing habitually.
Of course the Rangers want Kakko to succeed. He was the second-overall selection in the draft, for goodness sake. Of course they wanted Andersson to succeed. He was selected seventh overall. Does any rational individual believe that management or the coach sabotaged the Swede’s career? To what end?
But being selected seventh overall or second overall isn’t enough to automatically merit favored nation status. That is essentially what Quinn has been saying since taking over the job two-plus seasons ago. That is exactly what he was saying on Thursday night.