In the 56-game NHL season that begins on Thursday for the Rangers, quick starts will be of the essence.
Pavel Buchnevich, despite how he has started off seasons in the past, has plans to play a big part in that.
“I always have a slow start, an up-and-down time,” Buchnevich said Sunday night after the team held a three-period intrasquad scrimmage. “I just want to get ready right away.”
If the Rangers winger’s training camp performance is any indication, he may be ready to pick up where he left off down the stretch last season, when he played some of the strongest hockey of his career.
“The guy that’s kind of jumping out to all of us is Buchnevich,” coach David Quinn said. “Obviously, he had a real good second half last year. This is the best camp he’s had since I’ve been here. I loved the way he played in the scrimmage [Thursday] night, I just love the way things are going for him. He and I have had long conversations about what his abilities are and we certainly know what he’s capable of doing. I’m excited for the fact that it looks like he’s got a chance to maximize his potential for a full season as opposed to just half.”
Buchnevich, who had another sharp scrimmage Sunday, finished the regular season last year with 10 goals and 14 assists over his final 28 games after starting the season with six goals and 16 assists in his first 40 games. He thrived on the top line alongside Mika Zibanejad Jersey and Chris Kreider and picked up the slack late when Kreider went down with a broken foot.
That line was together for the first time in training camp Sunday for a morning skate before the scrimmage, as Zibanejad works his way back from a delayed start, but that threesome is set to stay together to open this season, which provides an added comfort for Buchnevich.
Rangers top-line center Mika Zibanejad revealed that he tested positive for COVID-19 prior to training camp and that’s why he was unable to participate in the first handful of days.
“I tested positive, so I was out for a certain amount of days and been going through and sticking to protocol,” Zibanejad said following his first full practice with the team Monday. “Been skating on my own and now first real skate with the team, so it felt good.”
Throughout camp, head coach David Quinn has maintained his confidence Zibanejad would be ready to go by Thursday’s opener against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden, but the 27-year-old Swede wouldn’t confirm.
Zibanejad, entering his fifth season on Broadway, added that he’s feeling good now and is taking things day by day, while also consulting with doctors.
“I’ve been in talks and having conversations on a daily basis with the doctors, the training staff here and everyone,” he said. “All I can say is I feel good now and [I’m] just really excited to be back on the ice and be back out there with the team again. Just looking forward to getting this going.”
Zibanejad was back centering the Rangers’ first line Monday, alongside Chris Kreider Jersey and Pavel Buchnevich Jersey. Although he hasn’t been able to practice with the team much, Zibanejad said he’s liked what he’s seen from the group so far through training camp. He also mentioned Alexis Lafreniere, the team’s No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, and K’Andre Miller as two young players who have caught his eye.
Behind only Artemi Panarin Jersey, Zibanejad accumulated the team’s second highest point total with 41 goals and 34 assists in 57 games last season. Many consider Zibanejad to be the most qualified candidate to step up as the Rangers’ captain, but he said there hasn’t been any discussions of that coming to fruition.
“No, not talks [about becoming captain],” he said. “If there would be, I don’t think I would say it. No, nothing. I’m just, the last couple of weeks, focusing on getting back and getting through all this. I’m just happy to be here again.”
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Quinn confirmed the second group of players on the ice Monday, which did not include Morgan Barron, were likely going to make up the Rangers’ opening night roster.
There was a ton of buzz surrounding the former Cornell center coming into training camp after he impressed through three solid seasons in the NCAA. He was named captain of the Big Red in 2019-20 and went on to score 14 goals and dish 18 assists for 32 points in 29 games.
“I thought Morgan looked nervous through most of the camp,” Quinn said on a Zoom call Monday. “People handle expectations differently, I think there was a lot of talk of him maybe having an opportunity to make the team and there certainly was an opportunity for him to do that. But it’s a big job, he’s a really good player, we love having him here. I’m not going to be surprised if he plays games for us this year.”
“But he’s just looked a little bit nervous, gripping the stick a little bit too much, worrying about not making mistakes. I thought his best hockey was [Sunday] night, I thought in the scrimmage [Sunday] night he was good.”
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“I’ve played probably half of my career in the NHL with these two guys,” Buchnevich said. “We have fun together. We just have to work hard for each other. [We were] clicking at the end of the regular season before the shutdown. I think we’ll be fine. Just need to get going right away, not wait like 40 games.”
While Quinn tabbed Buchnevich as a player who could take his game to the next level this season, the 25-year-old Russian said he is less focused on points and more focused on where the team can go.
“I just want my team to make the playoffs,” Buchnevich said. “I don’t [care about] the points or that stuff, lately I just want to help my team win the games and make the playoffs. That’s it.”
Buchnevich, who is entering the final year of his contract, attributed his late-season surge last year to being prepared for every game and understanding his body better. He has shown signs of continuing that strong play in training camp, even trying his hand on the penalty kill during Sunday’s scrimmage and doing “a really good job,” Quinn said.
“He continues to get better and better,” Quinn said. “He continues to grow. … I really just like his attitude and his approach to training camp.”