So it was the third period on Sunday afternoon against the Capitals and it seemed like every time you looked up, Colin Blackwell was on the ice, and why was David Quinn going to the 28-year-old role player — and even on the second unit of the power play! — when that meant less time for Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil?
Blackwell was noticeable, all right. Remarkably, and almost impossibly, there was a goal scored on each of his first four shifts of the period— Washington, Rangers, Washington, Rangers — within a total ice time of 1:25. Blackwell here, Blackwell there, Blackwell giveth, Blackwell taketh.
But at the end of the day, the winger finished with a sum of 9:28 in the 5-4 defeat, which is exactly what you would expect from a fourth-liner. It’s just that he was so involved. It’s just that he scored his seventh and eighth goals of the season. It’s just that he has scored 1.48 goals per 60:00 at all strengths, which is second on the team to Chris Kreider’s 1.7 per 60:00. Chytil is at 1.1, Lafreniere at 0.62 and Kaapo Kakko, 0.60 per 60:00.
So Blackwell, who signed a two-year free agent contract worth an annual cap hit of $725,000 per last offseason, earned his time. He is indeed earning every second of his average ice time of 12:56 per this season. And so he will continue to get ice time for the foreseeable future out of that fourth-line spot even as the coach’s task is to develop his team’s young guns.
The thing is, though, the coach has the responsibility of developing a team and a team concept. Even if this is not about making what would appear to be a wholly unrealistic run at catching the Bruins for the division’s final playoff spot, you cannot coach a team in the moment based on hope or potential.
Or, as Chris Kreider said at the 2017-18 breakup day that followed the purge and course-correction late in the season, “The NHL is not a development league.”
And that’s the crux of it, even as Quinn and the Rangers have the responsibility to develop the prospects that management has been amassing the last 36 months. This isn’t Junior B. This isn’t the AHL. But this is a very tough call.
“It’s something we talk about a lot and these conversations aren’t five minutes, they’re long ones,” the coach said before Tuesday’s rematch against the Caps at the Garden. “We want to win and I know we’ve got great young players and you want to let them continue to develop.
“Everyone has touched on how hard it is to develop in the National Hockey League. There’s only 60 minutes in a game and ideally you’d like to let [the kids] play 15:00 a night. But there’s so many factors that go into these decisions because you also want to play people who are playing well.
“Because again, you’ve got a team to coach and a locker room to answer to, as well.”
The Rangers are filled with homogenous pieces up front. Five of the six slots on the top two lines are accounted for, so that leaves everyone else scrambling to get billing. The issue is, while distinct as individuals, just about everyone vying for a top-six or top-nine role owns the same type of skill-set. They’re all talent guys. And though it won’t be possible to effect a makeover at the approaching April 12 trade deadline, the team’s composition must change over the summer.
For the Rangers are, to borrow one of Joe Biden’s memorable turns-of-a phrase, “A one-horse pony.”
But that leaves the present, where much more is wanted of Lafreniere, so much more is wanted of Kakko, so much more is wanted of Chytil, who has become a black hole in the middle of the third line since returning on March 2 from the double-whammy of having contracted COVID-19 while on IR because of a broken hand.
“It’s a balancing act and these kids have handled it well,” Quinn said. “To me, the minutes played are going to go from game-to-game, it’s not a straight trajectory line the way players develop, sometimes they do have to learn hard lessons and not always get everything they want.
“But again, you can’t take away their confidence so there are so many factors that go into these decisions and there is constant conversation among our staff about what the right thing is to do not only for the player but for the team because inevitably you are held responsible by the team.
“It’s not just about one player but we’re also aware that we have good young players who are going to be a big, big part of the future and we’re trying to accelerate that,” he said. “But we also want to win hockey games.”
So, tough calls for the coach. Made tougher when a fellow like Blackwell produces. Or does that make it easier?