After last night’s embarrassing 6-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, it’s time to give up on any hope of a Stanley Cup run this season and look to the future. Along those lines, let’s look at the current assets and future prospects, and agree that the Blueshirts need to make some strategic decisions before the February 26th trade deadline.
First, the facts. The Rangers have played 54 games thus far this season and have a record of 25-24-5. The team has amassed a total of 55 points–three points out of the second Wild Card slot in the Eastern Conference. In the extremely competitive Metropolitan Division, however, the 55 points puts the Blueshirts at the bottom. Yes, some of the Rangers’ issues this season have been related to injury. Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Marc Staal are all currently out of the lineup with varying injuries. Obviously, it is hard to win when so many key players are out of the lineup. But there were problems from the beginning, even when the Rangers were winning.
The team just did not have the type of D-core to be able to make it all the way. Although they solved the power play quarterback situation with the addition of Shattenkirk, there just has not been enough defensive brilliance to make the team difficult to play against. Nick Holden and Brendan Smith have both been disappointing this season. And although Ryan McDonagh has not had a bad season, it has not been great. Yes, it is true that McDonagh’s pairings have not made his life easy, but he still is not playing as he has in the past on either end of the ice.
In net, early on, Henrik Lundqvist was not his usual consistent self. But, since November, Lundqvist mostly has played brilliantly, keeping New York in games when otherwise the team would have been blown out. Yes, he does give up a bad goal on occasion, but Lundqvist more often looks beaten down by his teammates lack of support.
Before we talk about trades, it is necessary to look at the prospect pool and the upcoming draft. Up front, the Rangers’ best prospects are their two first round picks this past summer, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. Both are centers (although Andersson has been playing mostly on the wing in Hartford over the last few weeks). After playing in Europe to start the season, Andersson sustained a shoulder injury in the World Juniors and has been recovering here in North America since. His SHL team, Frolunda, is ending its regular season and headed into the playoffs, and it is likely that over the next week, he will return to Europe. But it is possible that he may get an NHL game in over the next few days.
Andersson’s numbers in Hartford (while he is rehabbing) have been impressive–in six games, he has recorded five points (1G, 4A). He is solid physically (albeit not big) and does not shy away from physical contact. And that is while he is still is not at 100%. He can play in both ends of the ice and either at center and wing, and is expected to play full time in North America next season. Although the Rangers have said that Lundqvist is the only untouchable in the franchise as far as trades go, Andersson should also be on that list.
Chytil has been outstanding in his AHL debut this season. He is dynamic and can be dominant offensively. In the 12 games since his return from the WJCs, Chytil has posted three goals and seven assists, centering Hartford’s second line. Chytil is very young (he just turned 18 in September) and is often getting banged around, but he should be ready for top six duties next season. He should be considered untouchable in a trade by the Rangers, because Chytil could very well develop into the top line center that the team has been searching for over the past decade.
The rest of the forwards in Hartford are steps down from these two top prospects and not likely to develop into top six NHL forwards. In junior or college hockey, Morgan Barron and Ty Ronning have stood out, but both are longshots to become top six players in the NHL, and could be the pieces in any deal to bring prospects and draft picks to New York.
On defense, Sean Day, a left-handed two-way defenseman, has the potential to be a number three or four D-man in the NHL. But, there have been questions in his development, so he might be valuable asset in a trade going the other way. Another defenseman that is interesting is Ryan Graves. Graves, long a favorite of mine, has great size and a heavy shot. But, IMHO the Rangers have asked him to be a different player than he naturally is–Graves is a more defensive blueliner. A trade to another organization would likely be good for him and the Rangers. The defensive prospect that I definitely would not trade, is 20-year-old Brandon Crawley. Picked up in the fourth round of the 2017, Crawley is a surprise. The number one blueliner in Hartford, he is a typical old- fashioned defenseman–he moves the puck very well, his gap control is excellent, doesn’t mind mixing it up with opponents, and he can skate. The left-shooting Crawley was an excellent find in the middle round of the draft and has a skill set that the Rangers should want to keep.
In goal, the system’s golden boy is 22-year-old Igor Shestyorkin, who is a star in the KHL. He is the heir apparent to Lundqvist, but will Shestyorkin come over to North America? SKA St. Petersburg will be trying to keep him in Russia, which would be a shame for the Rangers, but it does open the door to other prospects. The top candidate right now is Alexandar Georgiev, a 21-year-old free agent signed last summer, who has played very well in Hartford. Although there are a few other netminders (including U Conn netminder Adam Huska) in the system, Georgiev is keeping the Wolf Pack in playoff contention and should not be traded away.
So, to quickly recap, there are some good prospects in the system, including four or five who should be considered untouchable. Two top prospects (Andersson and Chytil) should be NHL-ready next season. That leaves quite a few holes. Could anyone the Rangers get from the 2018 draft be NHL-ready? New York has all but their seventh round pick in the coming draft. The 2018 draft itself is a good one, with most of the first round having a high likelihood of playing in the NHL. What is relevant here is that the expected top five picks have the definite possibility of being NHL players next season. So, the Rangers may well be thinking that a move into top five would be a good result of having to trade some good current roster players before the deadline.
Along the lines of who to trade, let’s look at some of the possibilities.
Rick Nash–It has been leaked that, last week, Rick Nash was asked, pursuant to his contract, to provide a list of 12 teams that he is willing to be traded to. Nash is a UFA after this season, but his contract is for $7.8 million for the rest of the year. It is likely that any team willing to take him will ask the Rangers to pick up some of the cost. He should bring back an excellent return though—at least a first round pick and a top prospect. Nash has been playing extremely well for over a month. Notwithstanding his failure to produce in the playoffs in the past, there are quite a few teams that would be happy to add him on the wing. He says that he loves playing in New York. As he may bring some of the best return of the players that will be traded, he should understand why the team will try to get something for him and consider giving the Rangers a discount when he decides where to sign this summer. Trade him.
Michael Grabner—Right wing, excellent on PK, who is the Rangers’ leading goal scorer. Free agent after this year, making $1.65 million. The biggest bargain this (and last) season, I do not want the Rangers to trade Grabner, and if I was the team, I would be attempting to resign him. But, if he is not willing to accept a reasonable price (less than Marchessault, for three or less years), trading Grabner now is the best option. He is not likely to take a hometown discount, so my fear is that he will be lost forever, but better to get something now than get nothing. Trade him.
Mats Zuccarello—A fan favorite, Zuccaarello is the Rangers current leading scorer. The 30-year old winger has one more year on his $4.5 million contract, after which he is a UFA. He is a spark plug on the team and may not be worth as much elsewhere. He does not seem like he has lost a step and New York will have another year to figure out what to do with him. Keep him.
Mika Zibanejad—At only 24 years old, with four more years on a reasonable contract, Mika should be going nowhere. It is still unsure whether Andersson and/or Chytil will become top six centers, and if neither or only one does, Zibanejad will be needed going forward. Even if both of the Rangers top prospects make the club and develop well, Zibanejad could be a great asset to the team going forward. Keep him.
JT Miller—At 24 years old, Miller can play at center and on wing; he is currently second in scoring on the team. An RFA after this season, he is currently on a two-year bridge at $2.75 million. He played in every game the last two seasons and is on track to do the same this year. Other teams have asked for him in the past and he was declared off-limits. Although the Rangers want to sign him long-term, he may have some of the best trade value among the forwards. The question is do you really want to blow up the entire team or leave a good core for the future. Based on his production over the last two seasons, Miller is a pretty much a second line player in the NHL, but he can drop down to the third line and fit in fine on a grittier offensively talented group. He is a valuable asset and should be kept as part of the core of the team in future years. Keep him.
Chris Kreider—Even before he developed the blood clot in his arm, the Rangers were not offered enough to make a trade worthwhile. There was always the hope that he would develop into the great power forward that was projected. Although there were signs that this could happen, now his future is uncertain. I am not sure any team would accept him in a trade. In any case, it would be best to keep him and see what he can do, if he is cleared for play. Keep him.
Kevin Hayes—This season, Hayes has developed into an excellent second to third line player. He has become the player the Rangers hoped he would, a valuable secondary scorer. Hayes is on the final year of his $2.6 million bridge contract and will be looking for a longer-term with a significant increase. Depending upon what the Rangers are offered, they should consider trading Hayes as part of a package, but it needs to be significant return. Maybe trade him.
Jimmy Vesey—When you look at Vesey’s numbers you might ask, “what’s wrong with him? He has not panned out at all.” But Vesey has yet to have a real chance consistently playing on a top six line. He has mostly seen fourth line action, but Vesey has shown signs of brilliance though. It is just too soon to tell what he is going to become. At age 24 and at the end of his ELC, a bridge contract will be appropriate for him. Trading him without knowing what you really have would be a mistake. Keep him.
Jesper Fast—The right winger nicknamed Quickie does a lot more than just get to the puck before anyone else. He makes things happen, he pursues and protects the puck well, and thinks the game better than almost anyone around. At age 26, with two more years left on his $1.85 million contract, Fast is a steal. Keep him.
Ryan McDonagh—There have been many rumors that the team captain and number one defenseman is in play at this trade deadline. Yes, he has not had a great season, but as I said above, look at what he has had to work with. And sure, they would get a lot in return for him, but losing McDonagh would be a big blow to the team, unless the Rangers got an equally good defenseman in return (which is unlikely). On the other hand, he is 28 years old and will be a UFA after next season, so there is uncertainty there. But, any uncertainty could be ended by negotiating a long-term deal now and committing to McDonagh until age 34 or 35. That is the preferable direction in my opinion. Keep him.
Brady Skjei—At the end of this season, Skjei’s ELC will end and he will be an RFA. He has been up and down playing in underperforming pairings this season. He has good potential and the Rangers will be offered some good trades if Skjei is included in a package. As he may not ever progress to what was hoped for, this may be as good a time as there gets to get the best return for him. Trade him.