Exploiting Vulnerable D

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

By now you’ve surely read no less than a dozen articles covering the nuts and bolts of Vegas Expansion. The rules, the dates, exposure criteria, and more. Minus the NHL’s announcement that their 48-hour window is now a 72-hour window, little has changed here. Neither has the strategy the Rangers need to employ with the Draft in mind over the next 18 days.

I explained back before the trade deadline that the Rangers would be wise to look at a forward-for-defenseman trade prior to Vegas’ expansion draft because it would kill two birds with one stone. Their blue line is in disrepair, with arguably the entire right side of the defense group in need of an overhaul and they have too many forwards to protect. This combination of problems is rather easily remedied, however, should the Rangers simply opt for a trade with a team with the opposite problem. I used Anaheim as an example, twice arguing—once for Nash and once for Miller—that their especially deep blue line was ripe for the picking. It still is. But so, too, are the defense groups of the Minnesota Wild, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators.

Should things reach an impasse in SoCal, turning to any of these three clubs could still provide the Rangers with a strategic partner as a means to solve one another’s expansion composition problems.

Let’s Get Wild

As if their unceremonious exit in the first round at the hands of the Blues wasn’t bad enough, Minnesota, like the Ducks, stands to lose a significant player from their blue line this June. According to CapFriendly.com, four players—Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, and Ryan Suter—hold No-Movement Clauses (NMC), and thus have to be protected by default. Presuming they go with a 7-3-1 format, it’s likely they choose to protect the aforementioned clause-holders as well as Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, and just two more defensemen (plus a goalie). Here’s the kicker—that D-group list includes Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, and Christian Folin. Pick two and you’ll still be left unhappy with three good players left out in the cold.

Pominville, 34, could potentially waive his NMC should the team ask him to, freeing up another forward spot to extend protection to someone like Eric Staal, who had a resurgent year with the Wild, or Erik Haula. Or maybe there’s something to those Niederreiter rumors. Either way, they’d be wise to talk shop with a team like the Rangers to swap one of the defensemen they’re bound to lose—say Matt Dumba—in exchange for someone like Kevin Hayes. Though he’d require protection himself, Hayes would slot in perfectly behind Staal and Koivu on the Wild’s third line, backfilling the role Martin Hanzal failed to produce in. Given his size and playmaking ability, Hayes might be especially attractive as a player to the Bruce Boudreau-coached Wild. Dumba, meanwhile, would instantly become the Rangers best right-handed right-side defenseman, and his aggressive style would be a welcome sight at the Garden next season.

Dumba has improved every season since joining the Wild full-time in 2014-15 after being taken seventh overall in 2012. In fact, since 2013-14, when he played 13 games with the team, his P/GP has improved every season. His 0.45 P/GP pace this past season is a career-best for him, as was the 11 goals he scored, topping the ten he scored in 2015-16. Furthermore, Dumba’s 56.8 GF% was third-most among Wild defensemen this season, trailing Spurgeon (60.5%) and Suter (59%).

Poach a Panther?

If not the Wild, the wish-they-were West Point Panthers offer a similar scenario. Luckily for Dale Tallon, only one Panther (Keith Yandle) has a NMC. This gives them near-ultimate flexibility with whom they opt to protect.

Given their current crop of players, it’s all but guaranteed they also choose the 7-3-1 format. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, and Jonathan Marchessault are sure-fire locks to keep away from McPhee’s Knights, while Nick Bjugstad and Reilly Smith seem likely to round out the seven forwards they’ll protect. On the blue line, Yandle’s NMC requires he be protected, giving Tallon an opportunity to protect an additional two rear guards. One of those is guaranteed to be Aaron Ekblad. The other needs to be chosen from a group that includes Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, and Alex Petrovic. If that man is Demers, that would theoretically leave Pysyk and Petrovic for the taking.

Enter the New York Rangers. A trade for Petrovic, another right-handed right-side defenseman, would be a solid first step in remedying their ailing defense. The 25-year old had 14 points in 49 games and boasted respectable analytics (50.79 CF% and 51.27 FF%) last season. Given his role as a physical, defend-first defenseman, these are especially impressive. His physical attributes are icing on the cake and would be especially attractive to the Blueshirts, who could use a dash of, let’s call it swagger, next season.

Perhaps the Panthers, who stand to lose both Thomas Vanek and Jaromír Jágr to free agency this summer, might see value in the speedy Michael Grabner, who scored 27 goals for the Rangers last season. With another year left on his deal at $1.65M, he’d be a far less expensive gamble on helping to alleviate the goals that may walk out the door between Vanek and Jágr than what stands to be available in free agency this summer. The only problem here is Grabner would require protection from Vegas, which complicates matters. The Rangers could offer a collection of picks and prospects instead, but not many given how stark their cupboards are looking these days.

To Catch a Predator

Last but not least, should all else fail, there is always the Nashville Predators. The Preds are competing in their first ever Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but regardless of the outcome, they stand to lose an especially talented player to Vegas. They are one of the only teams who I fully expect will opt for an 8-1 format to protect four defensemen—Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis.

The 8-1 route comes with its own challenge, however, limiting Nashville to four forwards to keep away from the desert. Smart money is on Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson as guarantees. That leaves one more spot that will force them to choose between Calle Jarnkrök, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson, and James Neal. It’s not an easy call to make, which is why many of the Preds projections foresee them losing Jarnkrök. Thankfully for them, at least Kevin Fiala is exempt.

Should they go this route, that would leave 29-year old Matt Irwin, who the Predators extended this season, available to the Knights. Unfortunately, Irwin is left-handed and plays the left side, where the Rangers aren’t in as great a need for an upgrade. Barring the unlikely departure of Marc Staal, if the Rangers pursue Irwin, one of he or someone like Brady Skjei may be asked to shift to the right. However, if the Preds go the 7-3-1 route, they would have to choose one of Josi, Ekholm, Ellis, or Subban to expose. In that case, Ekholm or Ellis may make the most sense in a trade, though the cost for either would be significant. A 2017 first-round pick—their first in five years—would undoubtedly be included. As would, perhaps, J.T. Miller and then some. Would an offer of Miller, Sean Day, and the Rangers’ 2017 first-round pick be enough to open discussions? That cost factor probably places Nashville just outside the realm of plausibility, but keeps them in the realm of possibility, if only as a technicality. But make no mistake about it — Ryan Ellis, another right-handed right-side defenseman, would be a coup, could the Rangers pull it off.

18 days is not a long time, though it may still feel that way as the NHL season winds down. But 18 days is all that’s left before D-for-Decision Day, and the Rangers have a proverbial once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kickstart their blue line overhaul this summer, while simultaneously mitigating their losses ahead of a draft that otherwise promises to rob them of a very valuable piece. The Ducks still remain their best course of action in a one-for-one trade, but they do have ancillary options to fall back on.

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