An Alternative, Youthful, Trade Deadline Approach

With poor play over the last few weeks and a brutal West Coast trip before the All-Star break, the Rangers are trending towards deadline seller territory. It’s too early to definitively say that, especially in a weak Metropolitan division, but it’s getting harder to see Alain Vigneault’s squad buying at the deadline. But regardless of this season’s aspirations, moving to get younger and more talented without giving up premium assets should be a goal.

Fortunately for General Manager Jeff Gorton, there may be a few young guys needing a change of scenery, so to speak, who could contribute to his “rebuild on the fly” mantra without costing premium picks. Around the league, there are a handful of guys, like Anthony Duclair, who are young but either haven’t reached their potential or may be expendable to their current organizations who could contribute to the Rangers immediately while providing more building blocks for the future.

We’ve seen New York capitalize on players, specifically Michael Grabner, who weren’t quite working elsewhere, and they’d be wise to take that approach with youngsters this year at the deadline. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between the Ethan Werek-for-Oscar Lindberg and Derick Brassard-for-Mika Zibanejad trades where the Rangers may find real value. While they’ll have to pass a risk/reward analysis, these players have high ceilings that warrant a bit of risk.

Sam Reinhart

Now 22, Sam Reinhart hasn’t come close to being the top center the Buffalo Sabres hoped for when they drafted him third overall. Though he had back-to-back seasons of more than 40 points at ages 20 and 21, Reinhart has struggled to show much star power, let alone any proclivity to perform as a top-six center. In some sense, that can be blamed on the fact that the talent he hasn’t played with many talents, to be generous. But there are questions about his game—notably his lack of physicality and compete level—that have disappointed regardless of point production.

At this point, given that he’s moved full-time to the wing and doesn’t seem to be clicking anywhere in the lineup as Buffalo head coach Phil Housley has moved him around, it might be time for the Sabres to cut their losses. For a Rangers squad that depends on intelligence and precision more than force, Reinhart could be a nice fit.

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“He’s a heck of a player, he thinks the game better than a lot of guys in this league,” Kyle Okposo said. “He can play anywhere, he can play with anybody because he’s so smart. He’s just got to stick with being a pro.”

Versatility has made J.T. Miller invaluable and Reinhart, even with his red flags, has enough skill and intelligence to fill a similar role. Buffalo fans are frustrated with the low return on investment (ROI)—rightfully so—and Reinhart has really fallen off of the map of top-tier NHL youngsters. But his ceiling and declining value could make him a smart target for Gorton.

Sam Bennett

Despite probably being the most costly of this group, Sam Bennett has had a disappointing third campaign with Calgary. Entrenched as the Flames’ third center, the soon-to-be 22-year-old hasn’t been dynamic enough offensively to take any of the scoring responsibilities from Sean Monahan, nor good enough defensively to prevent Mikael Backlund from leading all Flames’ forwards in ice time. As sort of an odd man out, Bennett could be dangled as trade bait.

“I just know his compete level, and I’m sure he’s frustrated, and I’m sure he’s trying to do too much. As a player I know it’s a cliché, but ‘less is more,’” Doug Gilmour told Eric Francis of the Calgary Sun. “He’ll come out of it. I know it’s going to affect him mentally because he’s such a strong-willed kid and he wants to succeed, so he’ll come through it.”

This is the type of comment that bodes well for a young player’s ability to turn things around, but it also screams a need for a change of scenery. Maybe that’s why teams were calling about him early this year.

As Joey Alfieri noted for NBC Sports, “According to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, Bennett’s slow start has prompted other general managers to pick up the phone and check in on his availability. On the most recent Insider Trading segment, McKenzie stated that the Flames don’t want to part ways with Bennett, but they also aren’t hanging up when other teams call about him.”

If Gorton thinks there’s any potential of Bennett being a long-term contributor to the Rangers, where he’d immediately play in a similar role but with more talent on his wings, he should be one of those callers. And, now pick depleted after the Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic acquisitions, a couple of picks might be more appealing to Calgary than other organizations.

Josh Ho-Sang

Is there a more disappointing player in the league right now than Josh Ho-Sang? There’s no doubt about his talent, but, with the Islanders, he’s failed to gain any traction. Perhaps that means his value is down and, at a lower cost, would be worth a flyer for any team looking to infuse talent into its system.

“It’s a crying shame he’s not playing with John Tavares when [Josh Bailey] goes down,” General Manager Doug Weight said. “We had six guys out. It was a perfect opportunity. And Josh should be upset with himself.

“The fact is, we need to be able to look at how some guys are laying it on the line [in Bridgeport] and he’s a healthy scratch. So to go from that to the first lineup here, where is he learning from that? That’s a big, big part of this.”

Ho-Sang has been productive in the AHL this year, with 15 points in 20 games, but being a healthy scratch in a developmental league is a bad look, especially for a guy who is 22, not 18. He’s got NHL talent, and an opportunity in a new organization, especially one that puts a premium on skill, could make a big difference for him. The Isles might be more prone to trading Ho-Sang, too, if they think they can pry a roster player from the Rangers to support John Tavares on what might be his last run with the organization.

Sonny Milano

Milano, who turns 22 in May, exploded onto the scene this year with four goals in Columbus’ first three games. He then proceeded to score just one in his next 25 while playing less than 10:00 per game nearly half the time. As the Blue Jackets prepare for a playoff run, even as they slump, perhaps he’s their best chip in terms of value and expendability.

“I don’t know if it’s fair, quite honestly,” coach John Tortorella said. “Sonny and I had a good talk [Sunday]. Our management talked to him. I talked to him. These are tough decisions, but the makeup of our lines…I have a number of people that I think are struggling offensively, that I’ve got to get them in better offensive positions.”

If Torts doesn’t think it’s fair that Milano is the odd man out, then he recognizes the kid’s talent. But at the same time, if other players, particularly Oliver Bjorkstrand, are getting priority, maybe that means Milano, the Massapequa native, is at least semi-expendable. He would, almost immediately, slot into the Rangers’ top-nine.

Dylan Strome

Buyer beware when entering the Strome market, but going back to the Arizona Coyotes trade well could be a savvy move for Gorton. Dylan Strome, the former #3 overall draft pick is just 21 but hasn’t been productive or able to stick on a Coyotes roster that’s committed to youth during a rebuild. That doesn’t bode particularly well for General Manager John Chayka’s opinion of Strome and could suggest that he’s willing to part ways with the youngster.

Strome has been showcasing top talent in the AHL and is producing at a scorching 1.39 points per game in Tucson. As is often the case with young players, the lack of a strong two-way game has held him back, in some sense, but he’s been better in that department lately as well, it seems.

Like Reinhart, Strome won’t be a throwaway for Arizona, and draft-pick pedigree alone dictates that the Rangers would have to pay to receive. But, in collaboration with Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, he’d give the Rangers a high-upside, dynamic young set of center prospects that would change the complexion of the organization’s talent pool almost overnight.

Nick Merkley

If the Rangers would prefer to bolster their organizational wing depth instead of pursue another center, but still want to work with Arizona, Nick Merkley, picked 30th in the same year as Strome, would add similar value. The ‘Yotes have five wingers who are 22 or younger that have played at least 11 games this season, while Merkley has only played one. So, like Strome, he may be expendable and a piece that Chayka could leverage to alter his prospect pool.

Despite missing some games this year due to injury, Merkley has produced at a clip of 1.25 points per game and shown a willingness to score with both his shot and in the dirty areas.

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New York sorely lacks talented wingers in its system, and a guy like Merkley would be a nice compliment to Andersson and Chytil. He won’t be 21 until May and has plenty of time to grow alongside them. If Gorton could pull the trigger, it’d be a lot of fun to see the trio play together in Hartford, if not with the big club.

Andreas Athanasiou

The only non-first rounder on this list, Andreas Athanasiou is also different in that he may be available for contract reasons. He missed the early part of the season trying to negotiate a new contract and, as the Red Wings’ cap situation isn’t set to drastically improve next year, he could be a deadline cap casualty of sorts.

We went back-and-forth on signing him to an offer sheet before the season started, but as the Red Wings are almost certain to be deadline sellers and the Rangers will, presumably, need to replace Grabner’s speed next year, the two teams could be a match.

As a player, Athanasiou provides the same explosive skating as Grabner and a shot that can give the PP a boost. While he won’t replace Grabner on the penalty kill, at least not right away, he has seen his defensive zone start rate rise from 37.9% to 52% this year, suggesting, at the very least, a greater commitment to a 200-foot game.

If that’s the case, the Rangers could tap on Athanasiou to provide a seamless transition to the post-Grabner era. His upside is certainly in the 25-goal range and, while he doesn’t boast Grabner’s defensive prowess, the right system, usage, and, in all reality, responsible linemates (like Kevin Hayes), could allow him to thrive after a low-cost acquisition that gives the Rangers leverage in contract negotiations.

The Blueshirts have 15 games left before the trade deadline, so we’ll know in a couple of weeks just how committed they are to being sellers or not. If they are, Grabner and Rick Nash could certainly be leveraged to get one of these young guys, and, if not, the picks they bring back should offset acquisition costs. But even without the additional assets, Gorton should be putting mid-tier prospects and picks in play for a run at these types of players. They’ll expedite the rebuild while still allowing the Rangers to get younger and much less expensive.

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