KZB is great, but Kevin Hayes is the New York Rangers First Line Center

NY Rangers

Talk about a headline that’s going to confuse quite a few readers up front. Since Alain Vigneault put together the line of Chris Kreider (3G, 1A) Mika Zibanejad (2G, 7A) and Pavel Buchnevich (4G, 3A), the group has been on fire offensively. Many of these points coming on the power play though, but nonetheless quite impressive when your first line is putting up that many points.

With all that positivity, comes a little bit of reality though. I wrote recently about Pavel Buchnevich and his ceiling, mentioning that he has the ability to be a game-breaking type of talent but that his play in all three zones needs to improve in order to be considered and trusted as a first line player. In today’s NHL, you cannot be a one-dimensional player. Especially if you’re on the team’s top line, you’ll need to play a significant amount of minutes both in the offensive zone and the defensive zone. What I’ve seen in Buchnevich, aligns with his recent promotion. You’re not bad at something one day and then suddenly good the next; improvement is a progression and I have seen the progression that I believe Alain Vigneault also saw which coincided with his promotion.

With that being said, this trio will only be successful scoring goals and winning games for the team if they can be trusted to play in all three zones in all types of situations. Many will say that Buchnevich, and Zibanejad as well, can and will be protected. The issue with that is it cannot last as we witnessed Wednesday night in Chicago and furthermore Friday night in Columbus when the line needed to be separated.

In order to protect a player, a coach will usually put him in a less prominent role. For example, a talented winger offensively with defensive flaws can be hidden on the third line because his defensive flaws won’t be exposed as much playing against the opponent’s third line as they would against their top line.

 

With opponents like the Rangers have seen lately such as Tampa Bay (Stamkos and Kucherov), Edmonton (Connor McDavid), and Chicago (Patrick Kane), Alain Vigneault has done a terrific job in minimizing the risk of exposing his top line against those talents. To a degree, the risk was minimized as the only goal scorer of that bunch was Connor McDavid which came by way of the power play. Reading all that, you might be asking “well what’s the problem?”

Most of the team’s breakdowns have come on the back end of their lineup. In order to have proper line balance, a coach needs to employ his first liners as a first line and he hasn’t. In the three games I mentioned, Alain Vigneault has had to use Kevin Hayes, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello in that top line role, and the team has been successful as a result of that. Buchnevich has been a -3 in the past eight games despite having seven points. Zibanejad is a +/-0 in that span despite posting nine points. The issue with that is, they’re giving up that many goals at even strength and they’re already being protected.

Kevin Hayes, who has flown under the radar statistically for the team, is a +3 over the same time span while posting a goal and an assist. Despite the numbers, he’s been trusted on and deployed to play against the opponent’s top line and has been more than sound defensively. He’s generating offensive opportunities every game and is a big reason for Rick Nash recently heating up as well.

The line of Kevin Hayes, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello has been this team’s top line. Against the Edmonton Oilers, Connor McDavid was held to one shot on goal, ONE, and that’s all he needed to score a goal, yet it came on the power play. Aside from that, Connor McDavid was contained to the tune of (oh boy I’m going to use it) his worst possession numbers of the season, 31.58% (Credit to Shawn Taggart). The biggest reason that McDavid was contained so well was that Alain Vigneault had the ability as the home team to have the last change, and consistently took the KZB line off the ice when McDavid came on. Vigneault didn’t have that luxury on the road in Chicago, nor did he have that luxury on the road in Columbus either.

 

To combat the deficiencies, Vigneault has utilized multiple tactics including the implementation of multiple looks on the forecheck which worked on the road in Chicago until the second period where the Blackhawks were able to adjust by getting the puck up and over and into the Rangers defensive zone. I think this is the most interesting thing to watch. If teams begin to start pinching the Rangers in their own zone, how much time will Vigneault be able to give the KZB line? This question was temporarily answered in the third period Friday night versus Columbus.

This is long-term view and this isn’t anything that I’m concerned about over the course of multiple seasons as the progressions I’ve seen in Zibanejad and Buchnevich’s play do tell me that they’ll be able to develop more defensively and hopefully into complete 200-foot players. Until then though, the KZB line is really the second line.

(Editors Note: This post was drafted originally on Friday, November 17th prior to the New York Rangers versus Columbus Blue Jackets game.)