Rangers still don’t know if there’s more to confounding Brett Howden

Part 8 in a series analyzing the New York Rangers.

So after two years, how much do we really know about what to expect from Brett Howden, other than the fact that the 22-year-old is always going to put in the work to improve and is always going to work on whatever assignment he’s given by the coaching staff?

Beyond that, though: Is Howden a center, where he had played throughout his entire career until David Quinn moved him to the wing last December?

Critically, does Howden have it in him to be productive enough to merit top-nine minutes, or is he going to settle into a fourth-line role that hardly seems befitting of the young, developing first-rounder, especially playing for a coach who has generally viewed the fourth line as a repository for mismatched players?

It’s interesting. Had the Rangers been either a little bit better or a little bit worse last season, and this applies pretty much from the get-go, then Howden probably would have been in the AHL because that’s where he would have had the opportunity to sprout his wings in a top-six role.

The last two years, the attention has been focused on Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, the centers selected by the Blueshirts in the first round of the 2017 draft. What’s best for their development, New York or Hartford? Should they play in the middle or the wing? What about their linemates, what about their minutes? At times, and certainly as applies to Andersson, it has had the hallmarks of a soap opera.

But that kind of discussion about Howden, selected 27th overall by Tampa Bay in 2016, has largely been hidden from the public arena, though we assume it has been a topic of conversation behind the closed doors of the executive suite.

The Blueshirts acquired No. 21 as part of the 2018 deadline package in exchange for Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller. When he arrived, he surpassed his notices. He was a man among adolescents throughout both prospect camp and the prospect tournament in Traverse City. He made the Rangers at age 20. He earned his spot. And he has kept it, maybe to his own — and ultimately, the organization’s — detriment.

I’m kind of baffled by Howden’s lack of productivity, only 15 goals and 27 assists in 136 NHL career games. He has good enough size and strength, it appears as if he knows where he wants to go, and, actually, he’s pretty decent going to net and scooping up loose change. But he probably doesn’t play fast enough and he may not think the game quickly enough to be on time, though he has been an adequate penalty-killer, albeit on a unit that is well below average. There is some sort of a disconnect in Howden’s game. Perhaps some of it is confidence.

Because here is the thing: Advanced stats, at least the ones that are publicly available, paint Howden as one of the very worst players in the NHL. This season’s 40.4 Corsi ranked dead last among the 230 forwards with at least 725 minutes at five-on-five, and his two-year Corsi of 41.36 also ranked last among the 235 forwards with at least 1,500 minutes of full-strength hockey. The stat may not be dispositive, but being last among 230 or 235 can’t be good. There is xGF and GAR, and Howden does not grade well in the more esoteric numbers, either.

Here’s one for you: The Rangers became the second team in NHL history to go at least four straight years without a first-round pick, having traded theirs away from 2013 through 2016. The Blues once went six straight years without a first-rounder from 1990 through 1995, the last five shipped to Washington as compensation for the free agent signing of Scott Stevens.

The point here is that though the Blueshirts were light on first-round picks, they have 11 first-rounders on the roster, four of their own (Marc Staal, Chris Kreider, Chytil and Kaapo Kakko) and seven acquired from other organizations: Howden and Tony DeAngelo (selected by Tampa Bay), Mika Zibanejad (Ottawa), Ryan Strome (Islanders), Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg), Brendan Smith (Detroit) and Julien Gauthier (Carolina).

Howden opened the season in the middle, generally playing with Kakko on one side and/or Brendan Lemieux on the other. He bounced to the fourth line before Quinn moved him to the wing pretty much for good just before Christmas. A couple of games later, the coach created the Howden-Chytil-Kakko third unit that kind of made sense given the locked-in nature of the top six and the bargain-bin feel of the fourth line.

Except the trio graded as one of the worst in the NHL, if not the worst, combining for a 41.10 shot share and an xGF of 39.01 percent while on the ice for two goals for and 10 against in 133:31. The probability is we won’t see very much of that combination again.

The question is, where will we see Howden?

On the wing?

In the middle?

In New York?

Or Hartford?

Brett Howden

Age: 22

Position: Forward

Contract: One year remaining on entry level contract with cap hit of $863,333

Stats: 9 goals, 10 assists (19 points) in 70 games

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