Bracing for Broadway’s Next Big-Time Blueshirt

Pavel Buchnevich New York Rangers
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To say the New York Rangers will be in a cap crunch this upcoming summer would be an understatement. They’ll be more in the neighborhood of cap hell.

The NYR brass will need to figure out a way to fill 8-10 roster spots with under $20 million in cap space. In other words, the Rangers are going to look A LOT different when they take the ice in October of 2016. The way to do this is by finding cheap, young players to fill big roles.

From far away, the Rangers seem like a team with an aging core and little-to-no future. The truth is quite the opposite. While the Rangers do have a slew of players over the age of 30 making big bucks (you won’t find a contender that isn’t in a similar situation), their main core is made up of guys with tons of tread on their tires with plenty of miles still to travel.

You look at homegrown players like Derek Stepan, 25, and Ryan McDonagh, 26. They have been driving forces behind one of the most successful eras of Rangers hockey. Neither player has really even hit their prime years yet. Derrick Brassard and Matts Zuccarello have emerged as the Rangers most consistent offensive threats as 28-year olds just hitting their stride in the NHL. The best is yet to come for that duo as well. Chris Kreider is just 24 years old and has been a staple in each of the Rangers’ deep Stanley Cup runs since he burst onto the scene in the spring of 2012.

Then there’s the (sort-of) new guys. JT Miller is in the midst of a break out season after cementing his spot on the team last season. Kevin Hayes has looked increasingly comfortable and has all-world passing and puck-handling ability that is still in the process of being fully unearthed despite a stellar rookie season. Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg have proven to be hard-nosed and effective bottom-six forwards who can punch in some goals in spurts.

With Kreider, Hayes, and Miller needing new contracts this June, New York simply won’t have the money to bring them all back and fill other roster holes via free agency. Luckily for them, there are a few NHL-ready prospects in the starting gates, just waiting for their names to be called in ’16-’17.

The Rangers’ high-end NHL ready prospects are few and far between, but they are exciting names that have been floating around for a while. We’ve gotten glimpses of defensemen Brady Skjei and Dylan Mcilrath. Perhaps the most exciting future Ranger of them all is Pavel Buchnevich.

The 20-year-old Russian winger was a third-round draft pick of the Rangers in 2013. Buchnevich has spent the last four seasons playing in the second best professional league in the world, Russia’s KHL. In the KHL, Buchnevich stacked up well against grown men and even some former NHLers.

Buchnevich can be described as an elite offensive talent with all-world ice vision. He is as smooth a skater as they come and boasts impressive, NHL-level speed. His best assets are his hands and his passing ability. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in creativity and sure-handedness with the puck. While he doesn’t utilize it as much as he could, he possesses a more than adequate shot to score in the 20’s easily as a full time NHLer. He is a shoe-in to be a first-line winger for a long time.

The most exciting thing about Buchnevich as a pro prospect is that he is scoring at similar rates as some of his comparable players like Evgeny Kuznetsov of Washington or Vladimir Tarasenko of St. Louis. They were in similar circumstances when they were in the KHL as boys playing against men. The fact that both of those players had to overcome similar obstacles while fending off critics, and are now NHL superstars, speaks volumes.

The common thought of the Russian prospect is that they are often times lazy and defensively irresponsible, with concerns of staying in Russia to play professionally. All of these boxes can be checked as big fat “NOs” in Buchnevich’s case.

On the ice, Buch has shown that he can more than hold his own along the walls and in the corners despite being listed at 6’0-170, a scrawny frame by NHL standards. Off the ice, Buchnevich has remained committed to playing in North America and for the Rangers.

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His KHL season just ended, so the Buchnevich watch is officially on. The Rangers can’t technically sign Buchnevich to a pro contract until his KHL contract expires on May 1, although there are ways to get a deal done if the player makes it clear that he wants to leave Russia. In the way of Buchnevich coming to the NHL stands Russian hockey politics.

Buchnevich’s KHL team, SKA St. Petersberg are one of the powerhouses of Russian hockey. They have all of the money and allure a Russian could ever ask for (See: Ilya Kovalchuck). SKA has made it clear that they would like to keep Buchnevich past this season. This is to be expected — and doesn’t really matter — if Buchnevich decides he wants to come to North America, the Rangers will send a jet within the hour.

The most likely scenario is that Buchnevich is selected to play on Russia’s World Championship team and is signed by the Rangers after that, over the summer. The other option would be to sign Buchnevich now for the playoff push, which is unlikely. For one, a year would be burned off of his dirt-cheap entry level contract. The other unlikely scenario is that the Rangers sign Buchnevich to a pro contract and have him spend a season in the AHL, a league that quite frankly he is too good for.

Buchnevich is good enough to step into an NHL arena and captivate audiences right now. There will be some brief growing pains as associated with any prospect, especially one that doesn’t know American language or culture.

As is usually the case with high-end Russian prospects, a bit of patience will be required of the Rangers and their fans. In any case, it is more than likely that Pavel Buchnevich will be lighting it up on Broadway next season, and many seasons beyond.