Blues' Pavel Buchnevich returns to MSG to find Alexis Lafreniere in his place
Mika Zibanejad smiled when asked on Tuesday about the fact he’d be going up against his longtime linemate, Pavel Buchnevich, on Wednesday.
"Playing with him was a lot of fun,’’ Zibanejad said of Buchnevich, who makes his first visit to Madison Square Garden as a member of the St. Louis Blues. "I have a lot of good memories from it. We had a lot of laughs, and it's going to be good to see him when I get to play against him.’’
Buchnevich entered Wednesday tied for second in goals (19) and points (46) on a Blues team that was second in the Central Division behind the Colorado Avalanche with a record of 32-14-6, good for 70 points — one point less than the Rangers (33-15-5). The 26-year-old Russian has been invaluable for St. Louis, playing on the power play and the penalty kill, and his 18:00 of average ice time is third-most among forwards on the team.
Buchnevich spent the first five seasons of his career with the Rangers after being selected in the third round (75th overall) in the 2013 NHL draft. And Rangers fans watched him grow up, adding more and more to his game every season until he blossomed in 2020-21, posting a career-high 48 points in 54 games in the COVID-19-shortened season, while adding penalty-killing to his on-ice responsibilities.
But the Rangers were more or less forced to trade Buchnevich last summer because he was a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, coming off a career-best season, and they were not going to be able to afford to keep him. Rangers GM Chris Drury dealt him on draft day to the Blues for a second-round pick in 2022 and grinding winger Sammy Blais. The Blues signed Buchnevich to a four-year, $23.2 million contract, with a cap hit of $5.8 million per year.
At the time, the move not only relieved the salary-cap pressure on the Rangers, but also it opened up ice time on the top two lines for young forwards such as Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and Vitali Kravtsov. But Kravtsov failed to make the Rangers’ roster out of training camp and went back to Russia, and Lafreniere initially struggled with the experiment of moving from left wing to right wing.
For the longest time, it seemed as if Rangers coach Gerard Gallant couldn’t find the right player to replace Buchnevich on the top line next to Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Kakko played there for a while and was solid, if not spectacular. But he’s been out since Jan. 22 with an upper-body injury and isn’t coming back soon. Even Blais, who was considered a third- or fourth-line player when the Rangers acquired him, got a brief look in that spot in November. That might have worked had he not suffered a torn ACL that ended his season.
It looks now, though, as if Gallant may have finally found a long-term replacement for Buchnevich on the top line in Lafreniere. The 20-year-old is set on Wednesday to play his 10th consecutive game on the top line. He does still have moments of confusion trying to adjust to the move to right wing, but those are happening less. And he has four goals and one assist in the nine games before Wednesday.
"I think, just, little plays . . . or it's little details for us that we've been talking about,’’ Zibanejad said when asked about the developing chemistry between himself, Kreider and Lafreniere. "And I feel like the communication is out there and I think — I guess the execution of the stuff we've been talking about, or at least, the intentions . . . So, definitely, it's coming along.’’