David Quinn didn’t know much about Brett Howden before taking the job as Rangers coach, but the 20-year-old rookie has certainly made a striking early impression on the first-year coach, who keeps giving him more and more responsibility.
“He’s been really good,’’ Quinn said of Howden.
Howden, who surprised many by making the team out of training camp ahead of Lias Andersson, started out as the fourth-line center, but played well enough to jump over fellow rookie Filip Chytil to take over as the third line center. Now, he plays on the power play and the penalty kill, and through the first month of the season, the 6-3, 195-pound Howden is fourth on the team in scoring, with 3 goals and 5 assists. He also is, statistically, the Rangers’ best faceoff man, winning draws at a 54.49 percent clip.
A first round pick, 27th overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2016, Howden was part of the blockbuster deal at the Feb. 26 trade deadline in which the Rangers sent captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller to the Lightning in exchange for Vlad Namestnikov, a 2018 first round pick (used to take Swedish defenseman Nils Lundkvist), a conditional 2019 first round pick, and prospects Libor Hajek and Howden.
So far, the acquisition of Howden alone is making that trade look like a winner for the Rangers. Howden has the look of a potential top line or second line center going forward, the kind of steady player who figures to be a central component of the Rangers’ rebuild.
CHYTIL GOING THROUGH UPS AND DOWNS
Filip Chytil is still searching for his first goal of the season, and his struggles are starting to become noticeable. After a loss to the Edmonton Oilers Oct. 13, Quinn said he had to find a way to get more ice time for the 19-year-old. He shifted Chytil, the 2017 first round pick, to the left wing for a few games to try and make that happen, but eventually moved him back to center for the last three games, even though it meant fourth line ice time.
“I don’t know if I worry, but you want to see him continue to grow,’’ Quinn said of Chytil. “Nineteen-year-old players have challenges in this league, and obviously, we want him to develop and play, but you also need to balance sending the right message and accountability and letting him know what’s acceptable and what’s not.’’
Quinn benched Chytil for most of the third period in the shootout win over San Jose because he saw something in the youngster’s play that night that he didn’t like. But after explaining why he sat him down, Quinn put Chytil back on the power play in the next game, against Anaheim, and Chytil got an assist on Kevin Hayes’ power play goal. Still, with the Rangers trying to protect a one-goal lead for most of the third, Chytil and the fourth line didn’t see much ice time in the period, or any in the overtime, but Quinn said Chytil was back in his good graces.
“He’s going to have his ups and downs in this league, as most 19-year-olds do, and he and I talked about why we sat him the last 13 minutes (v. San Jose),’’ Quinn said. “It’s part of the learning process. I know we’ve got a couple young guys, but you don’t just keep throwing them out there. You don’t want to send bad messages and not hold them accountable and create a little bit of entitlement; they’ve got to earn their keep. And he did a good job, I think.’’
PIONK IS CLASSIC LATE BLOOMER
It’s hard to imagine now, but Neal Pionk, who leads the Rangers in average ice time (22:58 per game), and has established himself as perhaps the team’s top defenseman, wasn’t drafted.
“I was too small,’’ said Pionk, who signed a two-year, $3.55 million contract as a free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth in the summer of 2017. “My first year of draft eligibility, I think I was a junior in high school, playing small Minnesota high school. It’d be hard for a scout to gauge, for a small, righthanded defenseman, how good you can actually be.’’
Pionk, 23, was 5-9, and maybe 165 pounds as a freshman at tiny Hermantown High (whose 2017-18 enrollment was 652). He scored 14 goals and 29 points in 25 games his junior year, but NHL scouts were skeptical. He played the next two seasons in the USHL, and after the second of those, in his final year of draft eligibility, he finally did hear from an NHL team.
“And they were, like, ‘Maybe,’’’ he said. “But it was a hard ‘maybe.’’’
But he grew to 6 feet, and filled out, to 186, and after two good years at Minnesota-Duluth, Pionk became a coveted free agent, and chose to sign with the Rangers. A classic late bloomer.