After subbing for top center Mika Zibanejad, David Desharnais remained in the New York Ranger lineup when Zibanejad returned. Though Desharnais posted two assists in Tuesday’s game, continuing to play him hurts the team.
The French Canadian center won a job with Rangers out of camp by default. Losing Derek Stepan and Oscar Lindberg in the offseason left New York thin down the middle. Alain Vigneault’s decision to cut both Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil made Desharnais the last man standing.
New York’s situation changed, however, when Boo Nieves arrived from Hartford. Nieves’ stellar defensive play gives the Rangers a much needed lift.
Between Nieves and J.T. Miller’s conversion to center, there’s no spot for Desharnais when everyone’s healthy. Zibanejad and Hayes provide the top six threats. Miller adds scoring depth and Nieves locks down opposing threats.
If Vigneault opts to dress Desharnais over Nieves, the lineup loses its balance.
While 17 points in 31 games is nice production, Desharnais doesn’t post those numbers without help. He starts 36.8 percent of his five on five shifts in the offensive zone, highest on the team among forwards. Desharnais also starts 29.1 percent of his five on five shifts in the defensive zone, lowest on the team among forwards (numbers courtesy of Corsica).
Basically, Desharnais gobbles up the softest shifts and avoids the tougher ones. This would be okay if he scored at a superstar pace (he doesn’t) or if the Rangers’ other centers were excellent defenders (they’re not).
Despite his recent hot streak, Desharnais doesn’t use favorable matchups to carry the play either. Using corsi, a statistic which tracks shot attempts, we can compare Desharnais to his teammates.
The Rangers manage shot attempts during Desharnais’ five on five shifts less often than with any other center. Per 60 minutes of Desharnais ice time, they attempt 45.2 shots. He lags behind Zibanejad (65.3), Miller (56.7), Hayes (52.8), and even Nieves (50.2).
Meanwhile, Desharnais surrenders shot attempts at the highest rate among Rangers centers (65.1). He does this while playing the most heavily sheltered shifts on the team.
Miller surrenders a similar rate of shot attempts (64.9) but does so while generating more offense.
In truth, the Rangers can’t trust Desharnais or Miller in their own end. Between the two, Miller plays a more important role. Miller produces points and has an outright lethal shot so he needs to be in the lineup over Desharnais. Using both players at center leaves few favorable matchups for Hayes and Zibanejad, New York’s top six centers.
Beside Nieves, Vigneault’s decision to play Desharnais hurts Kevin Hayes the most. Despite a load of offensive potential, Hayes starts only a quarter of his shifts in the offensive zone. Meanwhile, the Boston native begins a whopping 36.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.
With Mika Zibanejad flourishing in the role of all-around, top center and Nieves playing heavy checking minutes, Hayes finally sees a real chance to shine. But with Nieves in the press box and both Desharnais and Miller hoarding the softest minutes, Hayes isn’t in a position to succeed.
David Desharnais is a solid depth forward with veteran experience. It’s great that he can step in to provide a temporary boost when injuries hit. He can play along skilled players and even provide some limited offensive upside. Overall His game is limited and doesn’t make him suited to play a bigger role.
The Rangers can dress him and probably squeeze 40 to 50 points out of him with the right linemates. Or they can use Nieves, drastically improve their defense, and give Hayes the chance to reach his 60+ point potential. The limited ceiling of Desharnais makes using younger talent more enticing.
They can’t have both, though. And with Hayes needing a new contract at season’s end, they might want to finally find out what they have in him.