Despite sliding seven points back of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Carolina Hurricanes made clear that they’re not about to sit idly by as they flirt with a decade spent outside the post-season. In need of goal-scoring help that can aid their top-six, Hurricanes GM Don Waddell has gone out and acquired a three-time 20-goal scorer.
On Thursday afternoon, Carolina announced that they’ve swung a deal that sends 25-year-old Victor Rask, who has missed roughly half of the season due to injury, to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for 26-year-old Nino Niederreiter. And with no salary retention as part of the deal, there’s an additional — and likely welcome — surprise for Hurricanes fans that might speak to the mindset of the front office: as part of the swap, Carolina has taken on an additional $1.25-million per season for the next three campaigns as Niederreiter’s contract, which has three years remaining, carries a $5.25-million cap hit. Rask’s deal, likewise for another three campaigns, counts agains the cap for $4-million per season.
"We're excited to welcome a proven goal-scorer and veteran presence in Nino Niederreiter," said Waddell in a release. "We wish Victor the best moving forward and thank him for his efforts on the ice and in the community during his time in Raleigh.”
Currently in the midst of an admittedly down year, some will suggest that the Hurricanes have bought low on Niederreiter, and there’s some validity to that. During the 2016-17 campaign, Niederreiter posted a career-best 25-goal, 57-point campaign, but has suffered a slide over the past two seasons. In 2017-18, he fell short of the 20-goal plateau for the first time in four seasons and he mustered only 32 points. However, it should be said that he missed 19 games due to injury and was scoring at a 24-goal, 41-point pace. This season, though, Niederreiter has had one of his most difficult campaigns to date.
Through 46 games in Minnesota, Niederreiter has registered just nine goals and 23 points, which puts him on 16-goal, 41-point pace across an 82-game campaign. It’s not just in the point department that Niederreiter has struggled, though, as his fit with the Wild had come into question of late. To wit, after an ice time average clear of 15 minutes per outing over the past three seasons, Niederreiter had seen his minutes drop south of 15 per game in 2018-19 and Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had relegated the Swiss scorer to the fourth line in recent outings. In Minnesota’s Tuesday contest against the Los Angeles Kings, Niederreiter skated 13 shifts and saw the ice for less than 10 minutes. It was the second time this season his ice time had been limited to that extent.
Despite the disappointing first half of the campaign, though, the big picture look at the play of the two players over the past two-plus seasons paints Niederreiter in a more positive light than Rask. Taking only 5-on-5 play into account, with the two playing nearly equal minutes since the beginning of the 2016-17 campaign — Niederreiter at 2,392 minutes, Rask at 2,310 — the following are per-60-minute categories in which Niederreiter has outshone Rask: Corsi percentage, shots percentage, goals percentage, scoring chance percentage, high-danger chance percentage. And that’s taking into account that Niederreiter has actually had a lower offensive zone start percentage than Rask over that time.
Additionally, the offensive attributes Niederreiter possesses stand to make this a very nice addition for the Hurricanes. Compared to Rask at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes, Niederreiter has a higher rate of goals, assists, primary assists and points. That’s not to mention a higher individual attempt rate, shot rate and scoring chance rate. Niederreiter has shown himself to be the better offensive player in recent years, almost without question.
None of this is to say this is a deal that’s blown up in Minnesota’s face. First and foremost, it’s far too early to make any sweeping statements about the results of the deal, and Rask isn’t without his qualities. While he lags behind Niederreiter in a number of categories, it had become clear that Niederreiter was no longer a fit with the Wild. Rask can be. As a pivot, he’s more versatile than Niederreiter, a winger. There’s definite value in that. As well, it’s not as though Rask’s underlying numbers are poor by any means. On a Hurricanes team that hasn’t won much of anything in several seasons, he remained a positive possession player and produced at nearly 1.4 points per 60 minutes at full-strength. He can be a solid middle six contributor, and a change of scenery could do wonders for his game.
Getting the most out of Rask is going to require finding the right fit for him in the lineup, however. At a glance, he’s likely to slide into the third line to begin. He’s proven he can pile up points in that second-line spot, though. Across his first three campaigns in the NHL, while averaging nearly 17 minutes per night, he scored 48 goals and 126 points in 242 games. It’s only in the past two seasons, hindered by hand and shoulder injuries, that he’s struggled. Since the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign, he has 15 goals and 37 points in 97 games.
The added bonus for the Wild is oh-so-precious cap space. Minnesota was set to head towards the deadline with projected cap space below $1 million and the off-season was looking as though it could create problems with less than $10 million available. Now, however, the Wild have added an additional $1.25 million their coffers with trade season on the horizon and with free agent considerations in Eric Staal, Eric Fehr, Nate Prosser and backup keeper Alex Stalock, there’s some additional spending room with which Minnesota GM Paul Fenton can work either now or in the near future.