Brett Howden has been a regular with the Rangers since making the team out of training camp 14 months ago, never having played a single shift in the minor leagues since coming out of junior hockey.
But Howden is 21 years old and still just a second-year player, one of six players on the Rangers' roster 21 or younger.
“I don’t even have 100 [NHL] games yet, so it’s not like I’m trying to act like a veteran around here,’’ Howden said with a smile when asked if he still considered himself one of the Rangers’ young guys. “Obviously, I want to act mature and be confident in who I am and what I can do, and help this team. But I’m still learning every day from the coaches, learning every day from the older guys around me. But then again, I try and be a leader in my own way.’’
Howden has played in all 26 games this season, registering three goals and four assists, with four penalty minutes. He has scored nine goals with 21 assists in 92 career games. As a young player, there are going to be ups and downs, and right now, Howden is going through something of a down period. After spending most of the season as the Rangers’ No. 3 center, the return of Mika Zibanejad after a 13-game absence due to an upper body injury has pushed Howden down to the fourth line, where his ice time has dropped in three straight games – and dropped severely in the past two.
Howden played just nine minutes and 26 seconds in a 4-0 win over the Devils Saturday, and he played more in shorthanded situations (4:50) than he did at even strength (4:36). In Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Howden played a season-low 7:32, the third least of any Ranger, ahead of only his linemates, Micheal Haley and Brendan Smith. For the season, Howden is averaging 14:52 in ice time per game.
“It’s just changing up the lines – nothing really different,’’ he said, brushing off the question of his reduced role. “You’re just playing with different players. I go into the game with the same mentality – just trying to play hard, playing the right way, being accountable on the ice and [playing well enough to be] put in situations that the coach still trusts in putting me out there.’’
Howden suffered something of a blow when his closest pal on the team, Lias Andersson, was sent down to AHL Hartford two weeks ago. The pair was always working together after practice, taking faceoffs against each other. And they were inseparable in the locker room.
“It’s obviously tough having a good friend go down,’’ Howden said. “You’re around him every day for a couple months there, and he’s down there, and it’s obviously a little weird not seeing him ... But I think he’s doing well down there. It’s just for the time being. Lots of things happen, and things change.’’
Howden realizes things could change for him, too, and his fourth-line status isn’t necessarily going to be long term. Coach David Quinn has a track record of rewarding players who play well with more ice time, and Howden knows if he plays well, he’ll play more.