Jesper Fast is Proving Rangers Must Find Way to Protect Him

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

Though this opening round matchup with the Montréal Canadiens is a low-scoring series—one in which no player on either club has more than two goals thus far—Jesper Fast is quickly becoming one of the Rangers most important players in it, suggesting that come the Expansion Draft, GM Jeff Gorton will have to pull some magic out of his hat to retain the Swedish grinder.

The 25-year old is actually in a three-way tie with Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad to lead all Rangers skaters in scoring with three points in five games (two goals, one assist) despite averaging less TOI/G (15:32) than either number 61 (17:59) or number 93 (16:40). This is both a testament to his work ethic and a byproduct of the low-scoring nature of the series. Moreover, both his goals—scored in back-to-back wins in games four and five—have been important moments in both contests.

He scored the Rangers first goal of the game during last night’s game five victory in which he buried a diving short-handed Zibanejad-lead opportunity to tie the game 1-1 late in the first period.

The other came in the 2-1 game four victory, which was again the Rangers first goal in the game. Fast scored it a little more than halfway through the period after he was able to gain control of a dumped in puck that took a fortuitous bounce off of Markov’s skate, rebounding into the slot where he quickly took it to the blue paint and snuck it through Carey Price’s five hole.

Both were the kind of big game moments teams rely so heavily on in the postseason, when tighter checking and “smaller ice” can often neutralize a club’s star players. They also highlight the kind of hard-working blue-collar aesthetic Fast plays with that has helped make him an integral part of the Rangers’ bottom-six and their penalty-killing unit these last few seasons. In fact, no Rangers forward has more shorthanded TOI (12:22) this series than Fast. He’s played a full 1:22 more than Rick Nash (11:00) and Michael Grabner (10:10), who are also PK mainstays.

Earlier this month, WFAN’s Sean Hartnett perfectly described many of the attributes that make Fast such a successful player prior to the start of the Habs series:

You will often see Fast pressure opponents into turnovers, cut off passing lanes and make skillful plays along the wall to help the Blueshirts escape their own end. This typically isn’t the kind of stuff that gets picked up on the highlight reel, but these traits add up to something big.

The Dollars Make Sense

Fast is skating in his third full NHL season, and the final year of a very team-friendly two-year extension he signed in July of 2015 that carries an AAV (Annual Average Value) of just $950,000. He’s going to be an RFA again this summer, but only has one year of RFA eligibility left, which means anything more than a one-year extension that would take him directly to UFA would be buying UFA years from him. Sure, he’s never flirted with 20 goals, and his career high in points was 30 a season ago, but what he does bring for very little against the cap is defensively oriented consistency padded by the odd goal and respectable bottom-six scoring potential.

While there’s no doubt as a UFA Jesper Fast would have no shortage of suitors, I wonder if the Rangers don’t take a page out of David Poile’s book and offer him an extension in the vein of the one Calle Jarnkrök signed with the Predators last July – a deal that awarded the then 24-year old Swedish forward six years in exchange for a paltry $2M AAV. A similar deal would take Fast, 25, to the age of 31 and would buy what stand to be the majority of his prime years while giving him the security of a long-term deal to remain in New York.

To Great Depths

Fast’s play, along with fellow young veteran Oscar Lindberg, has given the Blueshirts a decisive depth advantage the Canadiens seem unable to match. This is something easily seen watching games where their strong forechecking efforts on every shift are quite noticeable, but it’s also borne out in the analytics:

As Urtz’ data indicates, at five-on-five, Lindberg and Fast are major standouts. Their respective 68.18 and 53.85 CF% (Corsi For percentage) rates lead all Rangers regulars this series. They are also first and third (67.92 and 52.22 respectively) in xGF% (Expected Goals For percentage), as well as in SF% (Shots For percentage).

This raw data directly supports what your eyes have been telling you throughout the series in which the Rangers’ fourth line have been rightfully praised. They are dramatically outplaying whatever line the Canadiens try to thwart them with and that is directly attributable to Lindberg and Fast’s presence there. They even managed to turn Tanner Glass, who has played alongside them through three games, into a positive possession player for what was probably the first time in his career. To be fair to Glass, he played well, especially in game one in which he scored his second ever playoffs goal, but the engine that has been driving the Blueshirts superior fourth line is clearly fueled by the young Swedes.

Unfortunately, all of this is also going to corner the Rangers into a really tough position this summer. One in which they may not be able to protect both Lindberg and especially Jesper Fast from the Vegas expansion draft.

I covered this back in November when I took a close look at what Vegas expansion might look like for the Rangers, and little has changed since then. Many of the same names—notably Grabner, Fast, and Raanta—are closest to the chopping block that promises to rob the Blueshirts of a very valuable player. Fast, however, I would argue now needs to be protected, even ahead of Michael Grabner, who closed the season second in goal-scoring with 27. So the question is, over who?

The Rangers will likely opt to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie (as opposed to eight skaters total and one goalie). Logic then dictates the protected group of forwards would be made up of Rick Nash (NMC), Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller. It’s unlikely one of them will be left exposed to protect Fast, which means the Rangers need to look at another avenue to do so – trading a draft pick or two to ensure George McPhee passes on the young Swede, opting instead for someone else in his place.

With their 2017 second and third-round picks in Detroit’s possession thanks to the Brendan Smith trade, the Blueshirts will either need to hope that Vegas sees enough value in the fourth-round pick the Rangers own (Florida’s by way of the Keith Yandle trade), or will potentially need to dip into their 2018 pool in which they own all their own selections but their seventh-round pick (which was traded to Ottawa in the Brassard-Zibanejad trade).

Could McPhee be enticed by the Rangers offer of their 2018 third-round pick in exchange for the promise to take defenseman Nick Holden, or Kevin Klein, both of whom have one year left on their respective contracts before qualifying for unrestricted free agency? And is Fast, a former sixth-round pick himself, actually worth the Rangers sacrificing a third or fourth-round pick to protect?

These are difficult questions to answer, but as the young Swede continues to propel the Rangers toward victory in this series, the question of whether he’s actually expendable is one that should be settled by now. He’s not, and the Rangers should be actively exploring the numerous routes that would enable them to keep him a Ranger for the foreseeable future.

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