Back when the Rangers broke camp and picked their team to start the season, GM Jeff Gorton said the team decided to send 2017 first-round pick Lias Andersson to AHL Hartford because, at 19 years old, the organization believed it was better for him to play first-line minutes in the minors than fourth-line minutes at the NHL level.
“I think at this point, when we looked at Lias, what’s best for him is to play, and not be on the fourth line,’’ Gorton said at the time. “The more we talked about it, the more (clear it became), to me, as a 19-year-old, he needs to play. He needs to play 20 minutes (per game); he needs to play on the power play — he needs to be developing. We just felt, talking in the group, that the best situation for him right now is to just be in Hartford.’’
Andersson spent the first month of the season in Hartford, played well, and got called up when injuries offered an opportunity. But with Mats Zucarello and Pavel Buchnevich returning from injuries when the Rangers hosted the Arizona Coyotes Friday at the Garden, Andersson was scratched from the lineup, for the first time in his professional career.
“We’ve got ‘Buchie’ and ‘Zucc’ back, so we’ve got our depth back, and that’s the decision we’ve made right now,’’ coach David Quinn said. But when asked why rugged veteran Matt Beleskey was in the lineup ahead of Andersson, Quinn made it clear that Andersson, who has one goal, two assists and 12 penalty minutes in 16 games, needs to get better.
“I think Lias needs to take a step back, and we’re going to help him become a better player,’’ Quinn said.
The Rangers are going to try a different tack now with Andersson, who had a birthday while in Hartford and is now 20. For the immediate future, he’ll be staying with the Rangers, rather than going back to the AHL, even if that means he may not be in the lineup every night.
Quinn said that is just another part of his development.
“(He’s been) inconsistent — which isn’t abnormal for a 20-year-old,’’ Quinn said. “He’s done some good things; he’s done some things he needs to be better at. So, probably normal challenges for a 20-year-old. Sometimes, we’ve all talked about, ‘Is it better for him to be here or Hartford?’ And we think it’s best for him to be here, whether he’s playing every single game, or in and out, or doing extra stuff after practice. We just feel this is a big piece of his development.’’
Quinn said he feels empathy for Andersson because he understands that expectations are high for a player who was drafted No. 7 overall. (Ironically, he was chosen with the first round pick the Rangers acquired from the Coyotes in the Derek Stepan deal.) Filip Chytil, who was taken with the Rangers’ own pick in that same 2017 draft, chosen 21st overall, made the club out of training camp and has played in every game this season. He entered Friday’s game with five goals and five assists in 30 games.
“I think we all have to realize that sometimes people progress more than others — quicker than others,’’ Quinn said. “He’s going to be a great player for us. No one’s ever been more excited about him than we are today, but we feel this is — I mean, he’s sat out one game. This is the first game he’s sat out. He’s not the first 20-year-old to sit out a hockey game.’’