After the New York Rangers sent Boo Nieves to Hartford in October, I wondered if he’d run out of chances. Since breaking into the lineup, Nieves has firmly established himself on the fourth line with his elite defensive play.
When the Rangers took Nieves in the second round of the 2012 draft, his combination of size and speed made him easy to project on. Chris Kreider had just made an explosive pro debut in the 2012 NHL playoffs. It was almost impossible to look at Nieves and not see him as Kreider’s center equivalent.
Nieves went to the University of Michigan and had a stellar freshman season, notching 29 points in 2012-13. Unfortunately, Nieves somewhat leveled off afterward. He played all four years of his college eligibility and never topped the 31 point mark.
The Rangers gave Nieves an entry-level contract in March 2016, despite his plateauing college numbers. Though he actually made his NHL debut last season, he suffered through an injury-marred first year in the pros, finishing with 18 points in 40 AHL games.
Despite playing only one more year of NCAA hockey than Kreider and fellow 2012 draftee Brady Skjei, Nieves’ prospect sheen had disappeared as camp opened this year. Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, both centers and both 2017 first round picks completely overshadowed Nieves in the preseason.
Filip Chytil put on a show in those exhibition games and few paid attention when Nieves was sent back to the AHL. I certainly didn’t.
But Alain Vigneault decided to send Chytil to the minors after less than 13 NHL minutes. That decision created a void down the middle, which cleared the way for Nieves.
Though Nieves grabbed attention with a three-assist season debut, that did not make him stand out. What makes Nieves special is his ability to neutralize opposing forwards.
Corsi is a metric for tracking the portion of shot attempts teams manage. It’s a decent proxy for five on five puck possession. On the individual level, Corsi can help tell us which skaters do the most to drive the play.
Two factors determine the strength of a player’s Corsi for percentage (CF%), shot generation and shot suppression. While peppering the opposing goalie with shots is great, Nieves’ game is locking down other teams shooters.
Corsi against per 60 minutes (CA/60) tells us the frequency of shot attempts the other teams manage when a player is on the ice. Nieves has the lowest CA/60 of any skater on the Rangers at 55.52 (numbers courtesy of Corsica). Only Mika Zibanejad’s 56.89 comes close to Nieves.
Nieves’ lead over other Ranger centers grows when comparing actual shots on goal (SA/60). Teams average 28.65 shots on goal per 60 minutes of five on five ice time against Nieves. Other Ranger centers SA/60s are Zibanejad (30.41), Kevin Hayes (31.26), David Desharnais (35.38), and J.T Miller (35.65).
Nieves does not grade out nearly as well on the offensive side of the puck (shots for per 60 or SF/60). The Rangers average 29.01 shots on goal per 60 five on five minutes with Nieves on the ice, ahead of only Desharnais (26.16) among Ranger pivots.
When Zibanejad returns from his concussion, he and Nieves should take the majority of defensive responsibilities. Desharnais and Miller (if he remains at center) should face the softest matchups. This would free up Hayes to play against weaker competition.
In time, Nieves should play a bigger role in New York’s penalty kill as well. Ideally, Nieves could take over Hayes’ penalty killing minutes and allow Hayes to take on power play time.
Nieves is still only 23 so he has room to grow. Even if he doesn’t take another step forward, he clearly belongs in the NHL. While an elite checking center is a far cry from the center version of Chris Kreider, Nieves is still valuable.