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Rangers' rebuild continues heading in right direction as they acquire Trouba from Jets for Pionk, first-round pick

Jacob Trouba was a prime piece of off-season trade fodder, and the New York Rangers managed to pry him away from the Jets, sending blueliner Neal Pionk and the 20th-overall pick in the upcoming draft to Winnipeg.

Jacob Trouba was never long for Winnipeg. If that much didn’t become clear during a contentious contract negotiation ahead of the 2016-17 season, a saga that dragged into November before the defenseman inked a two-year bridge deal, it was almost impossible to deny the moment he and the Jets needed arbitration to work out a one-year contract last off-season. The moment the filing was made, the clock on Trouba’s time with the Jets began ticking.

And Monday evening, time ran out.

Amid rumblings that Trouba was as good as gone before the draft – and likely before the free agent negotiation period opens in nearly one week’s time – the Jets announced Monday evening they had shipped the 25-year-old defenseman to the New York Rangers in exchange for blueliner Neal Pionk and the 20th-overall pick in the upcoming draft. The first-round draft choice originally belonged to Winnipeg but was New York’s property as a result of the Jets’ Kevin Hayes acquisition at the trade deadline.

First, a word on the price: at first blush, the return seems stunningly low, but it’s likely that Trouba was always going to fetch less than what many an armchair GM believed, if only because of the lack of control. The Rangers, who weren’t allowed to talk contract with Trouba, still have legwork to do. While New York obviously believes he will sign long term, there’s no guarantee there, and with the spectre of next season’s potential unrestricted free agency looming, Winnipeg’s bargaining power – and thus the asking price – was somewhat hindered. So, maybe it isn’t altogether surprising that New York gave up less than most expected to land Trouba.

That should only send the Rangers and Blueshirts’ GM Jeff Gorton further over the moon about the acquisition, though. The deal nets them one of the more sought after trade chips available in this summer’s market and a defenseman who has proven in every way, shape and form that he can handle the rigors of life in the NHL as a top-four defenseman. Trouba has not only shown he can handle big minutes, skating an average of 23:14 per game across 197 games over the past three regular seasons, but made clear he can contribute offensively and defensively over that time. He was a regular in the Jets’ top four and a top-minute defenseman at times, particularly during the absences of Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey this past season.

Trouba’s acquisition provides potential for the Rangers to have the linchpins of their blueline figured out for some time, too. Trouba and 25-year-old Brady Skjei would appear to form an obvious one-two punch on the backend, whether that means they’re paired together or anchor their own pairings. The duo can be the foundation around which the rest of the defense is constructed, and it doesn’t hurt the blueline’s outlook that secondary pieces such as Adam Fox, Libor Hajek and K’Andre Miller are already in the system, either.

The trick now, however, is figuring out the money, in more ways than one.

What we can surmise is that any contract for Trouba is likely to start in the $7-million range. When he went to arbitration last summer, his reported ask was $7-million flat. He ended up with a one-year, $5.5-million contract. And how did Trouba respond? By putting together the best season of his career. He scored eight goals and 50 points while playing all 82 games for the Jets last season. If he wasn’t valued at $7 million before, he almost certainly would be able to argue that case this off-season, and Trouba will have considerable power. After all, if he decides he doesn’t like the offers the Rangers table, Trouba can decide to go the arbitration route again, sign a one-year deal and test the open market next summer. Nothing is stopping him.

Assuming Trouba does sign, however, and assuming such a deal does pay him in that $7-million range over an extended term, New York will then have a fifth defensemen under contract for at least two more campaigns at upwards of $4.35 million. Already, Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith, the low man on that list in more ways than one, carry cap hits exceeding $4 million-plus. Signing Trouba creates no cap crunch right now for a Rangers outfit that has a projected $19 million to spend this summer if they so choose and only a handful of restricted free agents, Trouba included, in need of new pacts. But either this season or next, New York will need to weigh its options as it pertains to trimming the blueline fat.

Smith is already oft-mentioned among potential buyout candidates, as his four-year, $17.4-million contract signed two seasons ago has been a bust. Buying him out this summer would save the Rangers $3.38 million this season, $1.2 million next season and count against the cap for $1.15 million the two seasons after that. Staal is also a buyout candidate, especially given his no-movement clause, and the savings there would be $2.8 million this season, $2 million next and then consecutive seasons of a $1.2-million cap hit. These are decisions the Rangers can make once they better understand Trouba’s ask, though. Time is on New York’s side in that regard.

As for Winnipeg, there are some plusses here despite how quick this trade has been labeled a loss. Pionk has offensive upside, he can man a power play and produce in that role and if paired with a well-rounded rearguard such as Morrissey, who was often Trouba’s partner last season, the newest Jets blueliner could surprise some people.

Are there negatives, too? No doubt. Pionk is no Trouba replacement. He also isn’t all that defensively sound, and it could be argued that a more defensive-minded rearguard would have better fit the Jets’ needs. Add to it that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff landed a late-first and not a pick that’s in the real meat of the round and there’s a reason why Winnipeg isn’t being hailed the victors given the return.

But it’s also worth remembering the Jets were at risk of getting what was available now or nothing later. And in a market such as Winnipeg, which hasn’t exactly proven to be a free agent hotspot, that consideration has to be made. This deal also gives the Jets a projected $25.3 million to spend this summer, and they will need every penny of it and a whole lot more moving forward if Morrissey continues his ascent. Pionk offers a level of cost control, as does the prospect selected with the first-round pick. Cost certainty is an asset right now in Winnipeg, for better or worse.

With that in mind, there were obvious reasons for both sides to make this deal. For the Jets, it was finality, closing the book on a chapter that was only going to end one way, and freeing the space to operate this summer and beyond. And for the Rangers, it was strengthening a porous blueline and adding a high-quality piece to a rebuilding roster that is in a much better place Monday night than it was mere hours earlier.

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