The path to the trade deadline looks clear enough at first glance for the New York Rangers. But it’s actually thornier than it seems for GM Jeff Gorton just a few days out.
We know this team is full-on rebuilding. The letter the Rangers published to their fans last winter established that message, as did last season’s blockbuster deadline deal sending then-captain Ryan McDonagh and left winger J.T. Miller to Tampa for a pile of picks and legitimate prospects plus Vlad Namestnikov. The Rangers stayed conservative in 2018 free agency and have now picked five times in the first round across their past two drafts. The go-young plan has been realized, and Gorton says it started as far back as the summer 2017 deal sending Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes.
Based on the Rangers’ philosophy, then, we should expect to see UFA right winger Mats Zuccarello and UFA center Kevin Hayes get moved between now and Monday. For a little perspective: the Washington Capitals spent a third-round pick and conditional sixth-round pick Thursday to acquire two-goal scorer Carl Hagelin. Zuccarello has been magical over the past five weeks on the Rangers first line, ripping off 23 points in his past 18 games. Hayes’ blend of size, speed and two-way skill make him an ideal middle-six playoff rental. So both players have potential to land the Rangers a first-round pick or decent prospect in a trade.
Gorton, then, would be crazy not to treat Zuccarello and Hayes as must-go commodities…probably. Guaranteeing to ship them out of Manhattan isn’t as simple as it sounds. There’s still a case to be made for re-signing one or both.
“I think it’s best to look at both scenarios,” Gorton said. “It’s important to sit down and figure out what our player is going to be worth if we decided to go that way, but it’s also important to know what it would cost if we were to bring them back and kept them around our young players here so they start to grow. So that’s what we’re trying to do, and we probably won’t make a decision right until the very end. We’ll weigh the pros and cons of re-signing them versus trading them right to the end.”
But you cash in your expiring assets for the right offer, yes? Especially considering you can always try to re-sign a traded UFA. Yet every rebuilding team still needs some veterans. Zuccarello has 60 post-season games and a 2014 Stanley Cup final to his name. Hayes has 34 playoff games and came within one win of a 2015 final appearance. Another Rangers UFA, blueliner Adam McQuaid, won a 2011 Cup with the Boston Bruins. So it’s understandable Gorton at least pauses to ponder what leadership he’ll keep around to mentor Mika Zibanejad or prospects such as Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson.
Still, this team won’t be completely devoid of veteran voices without those UFAs. Henrik Lundqvist is around, as are Marc Staal and Kevin Shattenkirk. So it’s a near certainty we see Zuccarello, Hayes and McQuaid on new teams by this time next week, even if Gorton keeps things diplomatic in discussing his plans for them.
Trading the UFAs is the easy part. The real pickle is deciding what to do with left winger Chris Kreider. For all the buzz over potential rental power wingers Wayne Simmonds and Micheal Ferland, Kreider would be a luxury version of what those two bring. Kreider has the size and physicality but also excellent speed and athleticism, and he’s smack in the middle of a career year, on pace for his first 30-goal season. More importantly, whereas Simmonds and Ferland are UFAs, any team acquiring Kreider gets him through the end of 2019-20 at a team-friendly AAV of $4.625 million. He’d be a potential championship addition to a contending team. He’d also command a gorgeous return in a trade, just as McDonagh did for the Rangers last year since the team getting him knew it was trading for at least two playoff runs with him.
We thus should consider Kreider available for a Godfather offer, one too good to refuse. It won’t be easy to pry him away, and his contract includes an 11-team no-trade list, but it’s an idea the Rangers must entertain. When Kreider goes UFA in 2020, he’ll be 29. He’ll also have a body of work strong enough to command a long-term extension of five years at minimum. Re-signing him would mean paying him at the end of his prime and getting at least the start of his decline years over the course of the deal. Is that the right investment for a franchise so committed to youth? By the time the Rangers rise back to contention, the timing might not be right for Kreider anyway, as he’ll likely be in his 30s.
Trading him at his absolute peak value right now might be smarter and help the Rangers secure more prospects they can align to blossom around the same time as each other. Given Gorton seemed to apply that logic on the McDonagh deal, we can’t rule out a Kreider trade by Monday.