Brett Howden returned to Madison Square Garden this past Friday for his first game against the New York Rangers since being dealt this past summer, and the Knights center tallied a goal and an assist in a 3-2 shootout victory.
The Vegas Golden Knights defeated the New York Rangers 3-2 in SO yesterday. Brett Howden, ex-Ranger, was the most impressive player of the game in our eyes. He scored one goal, added one assist and when he was on the ice, Vegas absolutely outplayed the Rangers. Excellent game! pic.twitter.com/7CzhzwbHMR— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) December 18, 2021
Howden played 178 games over three seasons with the Rangers, and struggled mightily during his tenure, although the team never felt the need to send him to the AHL for development. Based on what was known about Howden at the time he was traded, “a disaster on skates” was a harsh, but fair descriptor for Howden.
Brett Howden (to Vegas for a fourth and Nick DeSimone) is a disaster on skates. pic.twitter.com/Dnpu7kogw7— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) July 17, 2021
Maybe it is the change of scenery, maybe Howden is starting to figure it out more at age 23, or maybe it is something else entirely. Maybe this is just a short-term streak of good play with soft usage. Whatever “it” is, there are 22 games of results with the Knights, and while it is still quite early and the sample size is small, now’s a good time to look at the Knights’ bottom-six center.
When the Knights traded for Howden, they were acquiring a young player who’d played in a great deal of his former team’s games as a 20, 21, and 22 year old. As I mentioned early, Howden had struggles which continued over an extended period, but unlike other youngsters in the Rangers’ fold, he never was assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL to work on things.
During his final season on Broadway, Howden appeared in 42 games for the Blueshirts and ended the year with a line of 1-6-7, and a Goals Above Replacement rating of -0.7 per the folks at Evolving-Hockey.com. This number included an even strength offense rating of -1.7, an even strength defense rating of 0.2, a power play offense rating of -0.1, a short handed defense rating of -0.2, and a penalties drawn and taken differential rating of 1.
This year, Howden has been positive or neutral in each category, including an even strength offense rating of 1.8, an even strength defense rating of 0.2, and a penalties drawn and taken differential rating of 0.2. All in, Howden has a GAR of 2.1, and has been worth 0.7 standings points above replacement. He also has three goals and five assists for eight points, while shooting an unsustainable 21.4 percent, and is on pace to have a career year offensively.
Using Goals Above Replacement is just one way of looking at Howden’s play, but by no means is it the be-all, end-all. For context on what I mean by this, Zach Whitecloud leads the Golden Knights with a GAR of 6.9, with Reilly Smith in second at 5.8. Howden’s 2.1 rating is ninth among total skaters, and it puts him ahead of teammates like Jonathan Marchessault (1.4) and Shea Theodore (1).
It goes without saying that Howden isn’t a better overall player than Marchessault or Theodore, but what it says is that Howden has performed well in the role he’s been in. It also reflects that Howden’s performed better relative to his previous season than Marchessault and Theodore have. In fairness, Howden only had room to go up, and there’s still time for things to change.
Marchessault for example is a 3.1 in offensive GAR, a -1.3 in defensive GAR, and a -0.5 in penalties drawn and taken differential GAR. The negatives are bringing down his total score, and highlight opportunities where he can be better. The same is pretty much true of Theodore who conversely has posted a 2.8 offensive GAR, a -2.2 in defensive GAR, and a 0.4 in penalties drawn and taken differential. Both players are providing value for Vegas, but analytically there are some negatives impacting their total potential effectiveness.
Another interesting case is Nicolas Roy who has posted a very solid 4.2 EVO GAR, but has a -1.6 EVD GAR which knocks him down a peg. In total, Roy has an OFF GAR of 4.4, a DEF GAR of -1.6, and a -0.8 penalties drawn and taken differential. The soon-to-be 25-year-old is a goal and a point away from setting career highs, and is currently holding things down on the third line. If he’s able to improve defensively and get neutral on penalties drawn and taken differential, he could move toward the top of the team’s table in GAR.
There’s other ways to look at players besides GAR, and another way of looking at Howden’s performance this season using his RAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus) chart, which you can learn more about here.
Now take a look at his chart from last year, which is roughly double what he has played so far this season.
Here’s another set of visuals, these from MoneyPuck, plotting Howden this season with his teammates on Vegas, and one with Howden last season on the Rangers. These charts measure performance using expected goals vs. goals, and putting players in a particular quadtant.
It seems that no matter how you look at things, results are night and day for Howden. Objectively he’s pushing in the right direction thus far from an analytical perspective, and his on-ice play has impressed the coaching staff.
#VegasBorn coach Peter DeBoer said Brett Howden has earned the trust of the staff.— Jon Lane (@JonLaneNHL) December 18, 2021
“I think he's worked to have the success he's having, and it hasn't been easy, and it hasn't been given to him. He's earning the shifts and the opportunities he's getting."
Howden is currently centering Vegas’ fourth line, and is sporting a 62.52 goals for percentage, a 48.65 Corsi for percentage, and a 52.09 expected goals for percentage. Those numbers last season were 43.94, 46.15, and 45.58 respectively.
One thing that’s been different is the chances against, which could be a byproduct of skating just 9:55 a game, and averaging 14.5 shifts a game. Howden skated 12:34 a game last season, and averaged 18.2 shift a game. It is something I will monitor, but credit to Vegas for finding a way to effectively use Howden thus far. All players can do is make the most of the situations they are placed in, and that’s what Howden has done this season. He’s also been better at the faceoff circle, with a 49.6% win rate this season, which is slightly higher than his career win rate of 48.2%. He also has five takeaways in 22 games, after having 6 in 42 games last season, although he’s given the puck away 7 times after doing so just 6 times last season.
The key for Howden will be if he can continue this level of play. It is one thing to get off to a decent start during the first quarter of the season, it is another entirely to keep things going. It wasn’t too long ago that Howden was a first-round pick that posted a line of 109-158-267 in 248 games in the WHL with the Moose Jaw Warriors. He was a decent prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning, maybe a bit overhyped by Steve Yzerman in trade negotiations, but he had the makings of being an NHL player.
I truly wonder how things could have gone differently in New York had he been given a chance to gain confidence and establish his game in the AHL. Howden’s first season in the NHL saw him finish with a GAR of -6. Season two saw him improve to -2.8, and last year was -0.7. So while a stay in the AHL most likely would have helped, if things continue they way they are, maybe Howden just needed a little more time.
But now he’s a member of the Golden Knights with a fresh start, and making the most of his opportunity. Jack Eichel is eventually going to come off injured reserve and make his debut, and that ultimately will push everyone down a spot which could push Howden out of the lineup. If Howden keeps up his current level of play, he’ll force head coach Pete DeBoer to make a tough decision, but for now all Howden can focus on what is in his control, and that is continuing his strong start.
Stats via Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise noted.