Rangers acting coach Kris Knoblauch accused himself of "mismanagement’’ when asked about Alexis Lafreniere’s ice time in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Capitals in Washington. And he apparently was still bothered by that even as his team was set to face the lowly Buffalo Sabres at the Garden Monday night.
"Players make mistakes when they're on the ice, [and] so do coaches,’’ Knoblauch said after his team’s morning skate Monday.
Knoblauch was caught up in trying to win a game Saturday in Washington, and he decided he didn’t want to chance having the Capitals throw out their big guns – Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, et al – on the ice against his Kid Line of Lafreniere, 19, Filip Chytil, 21, and Kaapo Kakko, 20. So Knoblauch leaned heavily on his vets, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and their lines, down the stretch. It paid off when Zibanejad ended up scoring the game-winner in the game to help the Rangers get a split of the two-game series in Washington.
Knoblauch said Monday he would meet with Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko to go over some video and "show them some things that they can improve on,’’ but the coach said he’s learned a lot about the three youngsters’ games in the brief time he’s coached the team, filling in for David Quinn and his bench staff, which missed their fourth game Monday while still being unavailable due to Covid protocol.
"I think, when the three of them are skating and checking, they're really effective,’’ Knoblauch said of the Kid Line. "And for the most part I have seen that. and sometimes as a coach you're always hesitant to throw three young players, like they are, (on the ice), and get them caught against an Ovechkin or Kuznetsov, or [Nicklas] Backstrom. As a coach, you get a little hesitant. But from what I've seen, they've been playing really well.’’
Playing well hasn’t translated into statistical success, though. Entering Monday, the trio had scored one goal – that by Chytil, in the 9-0 win over Philadelphia on St. Patrick’s Day – in four games together. Individually, Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft, had no goals (and just two assists) in his last 19 games, and Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick overall in 2020, had a single assist in his last nine games.
Chytil, who has had two goals and three assists in 11 games, as he returned from a broken hand, said he isn’t worried about the lack of production, though, and he insisted he doesn’t feel pressure to try and set up Kakko, who has just two goals and two assists in 23 games overall.
"No. I think we’ve created so many chances,’’ he said. "We're playing good hockey. Just, we have to put the puck to the net… I don't feel any pressure about it. We have 26 more games [beginning Monday] and, and every game is different.’’
According to the hockey analytics site Natural Stat Trick, the trio had played 39:13 together before Monday’s game, generating one goal, conceding none, and outshooting their opponents 23-14. They had created four high-danger scoring chances, while giving up three, and their Expected Goals For (xGF) was 1.23 per 60 minutes, while their Expected Goals Against (xGA) was 0.81.
Analytics aside, Knoblauch’s eyes tell him the three youngsters are playing responsibly in their own end of the ice, creating opportunities in the offensive end, and appear poised to break out.
"The way all three of them skate, and [with] their playmaking abilities, just by playing tenacious, they'll create some good scoring chances,’’ Knoblauch said. "And I think they have. And they're just really close to really capitalizing and contributing more offensively.’’