In case you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps just don’t watch many Anaheim Ducks games, Cam Fowler, the Rangers 2010 1st-round draft pick that should have been, is having himself quite a year. The 25-year old Windsor, Ontario native has 30 points through 58 games (11 goals, 19 assists), tying him with Minnesota Wild blueliner Ryan Suter for 12th in scoring among defensemen in the NHL this season. He also leads all Ducks defensemen in TOI/G at practically 25 minutes a night (24:49) and nearly doubles the production of the Ducks’ next highest scoring defender, Sami Vatanen, who has 17 points in 49 games (2 goals, 15 assists). Fowler’s impact for the Ducks has been so great this season, you would need to combine all the goals scored by the rest of Ducks’ regular defenders who have played in at least 20 games this season to rival his goal-scoring production alone.
Despite his resurgence, the sixth-year pro has found himself a relative constant in the NHL trade rumor mill, especially over the last few seasons. In fact, his name resurfaced regarding trade speculation earlier this season, with the Canadiens, Sabres, and Rangers specifically being mentioned as teams of interest by TSN’s Bob McKenzie during a between periods report on NBC Sports Network. However, McKenzie’s tune has changed in the months since, having recently said that Fowler’s performance this season now has the Ducks looking at him in a way they likely haven’t before now—as a long-term staple of their defense.
McKenzie: "Cam Fowler has become untradeable because he's so good." Might be #NHLDucks' "best player, never mind their best defenseman."
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) February 3, 2017
Earlier this week in his weekly 30 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman expects Anaheim “to make a huge run at re-signing him on July 1 — the earliest he is able to extend”.
Anaheim GM Bob Murray has told interested teams he’s in no hurry to move a defenceman and that it’s very possible he waits until after the playoffs. And, teams that were hoping Cam Fowler would be available either in a trade (this summer) or as a free agent (next summer) now say they expect the Ducks to make a huge run at re-signing him on July 1 — the earliest he is able to extend.
As of next season, Fowler will be entering the final year of the 5-year/$20M ($4M AAV) extension he signed with the Ducks in 2012, which explains the Ducks’ interest in getting ahead of what could be a distraction should he not sign a long-term extension this summer. Players in a similar position to the one he would be in, potentially facing Unrestricted Free Agency at the age of 26, have admitted in the past that the lack of certainty over their future had a negative impact on their play during their contract year, especially as the trade deadline approached and the idea of their respective front offices dealing them, lest they are lost for nothing as free agents, becomes more of a serious thought. Steven Stamkos is the most recent example of this phenomena. Despite ultimately re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he admitted that the uncertainty of not having his contract signed prior to the season weighed on him, affecting his play on the ice as it continued to distract him throughout the season.
A long-term deal for Fowler would, no doubt, be an expensive venture, likely worth at least $5M per season over no less than six years, though the Ducks can go so far as to offer him a maximum of eight. The problem with doing so, however, is the potential impact it would create for their salary cap balance where they already have $47.8M dedicated to players under contract for the start of the 2018-19 season. Among that group are Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen, both of whom recently signed long-term extensions with the Ducks, while young impact rearguards Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore, and Josh Manson, all RFAs, the latter of whom is arbitration eligible, will also require new deals. Kevin Bieksa’s $4M AAV deal expires that summer, but early projections for what it might cost to keep the talented group of defenders together are still costly. It stands to reason that one of them may instead be better served in a trade. Enter the New York Rangers.
It’s no secret that the Blueshirts are hurting for help on defense, particularly of the mobile puck-moving variety, which explains their early interest in Fowler, among others. With both clubs are somewhat limited by the cap ceiling, especially one that may stay flat should the NHLPA decline to enact the five percent escalator this summer, the most likely trade targets are either the aforementioned Vatanen and Lindholm. While both signed long-term deals with Anaheim this past year, should the Ducks get Fowler signed long-term, they would likely look to move one of these two defensemen to create some breathing room before opting to give up on one of their cost-controlled assets like Manson or Montour instead. It’s a scenario the Rangers should be all over.
James Mirtle of the Athletic actually used the Ducks as a model to explain the lack of trades in the NHL this season, citing the fact that no matter the protection configuration they opt for, someone of note—perhaps Jakob Silfverberg or Rickard Rakell—will have to be exposed. The Rangers could theoretically offer the Ducks a unique opportunity to sidestep this complication while simultaneously addressing their dire need for blue line help.
As Mirtle said:
It probably makes sense for the Ducks to move a defenceman for a forward given they’ve had trouble scoring and they’ve got a wealth of interesting prospects like Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour coming on the back end. (Aside: Those young Anaheim D are coming up in trade rumours, too. Bob Murray has been busy.)
But almost every team that takes back a defenceman for a forward runs into expansion draft complications. The deal can end up looking more lopsided when you factor who is being exposed. It’s no longer Player X for Manson – it might become Player X and Player Y (exposed to Vegas) for Manson, which makes it a tougher call.
His assessment isn’t wrong. It is, however, only an issue if the two teams talking trade are facing the same kind of roster imbalance that the Ducks are. The Rangers aren’t. They’re facing the opposite problem, having too many forwards to protect, which makes them a prime partner in a potential trade. The Rangers forward depth is so deep this season they may realistically have to allow Michael Grabner, the club’s leading goal-scorer, to be exposed to Vegas. Specifically, because they are also required to protect their two most expensive defensemen, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who both own full No-Movement Clauses (NMC). The Ducks, on the other hand, not only have too many defensemen to protect but are also having trouble scoring this season. Their 2.59 G/GP is ranked 20th in the NHL. If the Rangers deal a scoring forward to Anaheim for one of their defensemen, the two clubs could theoretically solve each other’s Vegas problem while also improving their respective rosters in the process.
If the Rangers opt to buyout Dan Girardi this summer, they could easily protect the same group of forwards they are likely intent on keeping while opening an additional protection slot for the defenseman they acquire from Anaheim. Instead of being forced to expose a quality defenseman, the Ducks could trade one in exchange for a scoring forward, granting them a more favorable protection configuration.
My suggestion is that the Rangers look to deal Rick Nash in this situation in exchange for the 25-year old Sami Vatanen. Nash, 32, has an additional year remaining on his contract that carries a $7.8M AAV. He’s also one of a number of Rangers forwards on pace for 25+ goals—something the Ducks could certainly benefit from. It’s likely the Rangers would need to retain some percentage of his salary in the deal to make it comfortable for both clubs, given their respective cap concerns, but the result would be a proverbial win-win nonetheless.
Should the Nash-for-Vatanen deal go down, the Ducks could then proceed to protect Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, Rick Nash, and one additional forward, as well as Lindholm, Fowler, and Manson on defense. Similar to the situation the Rangers face with Dan Girardi, they would likely need to buy out the final year of Kevin Bieksa’s contract to get around his NMC.
The Rangers, as a result, would likely opt to protect Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and Michael Grabner, as well as Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal (NMC), and Sami Vatanen, with Girardi bought out this June.
Nash would no doubt look great skating on the left side of Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf and his right wing, Jakob Silfvererg, or perhaps beside the 23-year old Swedish center, Rickard Rakell, and alternate captain Corey Perry. Meanwhile, for the Rangers, Vatanen would do wonders in alleviating the pressures the Rangers are struggling to solve in providing Ryan McDonagh with a suitable defense partner adept at moving the puck to his forwards. The highly-skilled Finn would be a welcome addition to a weak right side in dire need of an upgrade.
With approximately two weeks to go before the trade deadline, the time is now for both franchises to recognize the manner in which they can help one another kill two birds with one stone, as this opportunity isn’t likely to present itself so favorably again. The two teams could still talk trade this summer, but not without each having paid an unnecessary price in losing a player they could otherwise have protected from Vegas’ grip.