Lindberg Trade: Still a Landslide Victory, Even in Retrospect

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

Here’s a fun thought experiment: “Rangers trade”.

Quick—what’s the first thing you think of?

Like most fans, I’d imagine the bigger name deals immediately spring to mind. Deals like the Rick Nash trade that saw fan favorites Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov shipped to Columbus in the summer of 2012. Perhaps the captain-for-captain Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis trade in 2014, or the Keith Yandle trade that shipped Anthony Duclair to the desert in 2015? Hell, maybe recency bias plays a role here and Eric Staal haunts your frontal lobe for a few moments.

Regardless who comes to mind for you, chances are it’s of the “blockbuster” variety.

It’s only natural—most of those players are stars, or were, and performed like stars. In Nash’s case, he still is, even if his age has pushed his role back a bit.

A deal that you probably didn’t think about is the one that then General Manager Glen Sather agreed to in May of 2011 in which the Rangers exchanged prospect forwards with frequent trading partners, the Arizona Coyotes. In a quiet exchange, the Rangers dealt 19-year old Ethan Werek, taken in the second round, 47th overall in 2009, for 19-year old Oscar Lindberg, also taken in the second round, 52nd overall, in the same draft. Five years later, it wouldn’t turn out to be nearly as quiet as the day it was announced.

At the time, Lindberg had five goals and nine assists in 41 games with his native Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League (SEL). He’d also played in 18 playoff games where he registered three goals and four assists, good for sixth on the team in scoring, and had four points (two goals, two assists) for Sweden at the 2011 World Junior Championships. It was likely here where the Rangers’ interest was piqued.

Werek, by comparison, had skated in 47 games with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), scoring 24 goals and 28 assists for 52 points. Since being drafted in 2009, he had scored 116 points in 104 games with the Frontenacs.

On the surface, the exchange seemed to heavily favor the Coyotes. Why would the Rangers deal such a high-scoring Junior player, who’d drawn comparisons to former Rangers’ great Adam Graves, who was taken higher in the draft (even if it was only by five positions) for a far less productive player of the same age playing in Europe? Well, apparently because the Rangers’ scouting staff saw something in Lindberg that they didn’t in Werek—an NHL future. Time would ultimately prove them right on that hunch.

As I mentioned, Werek had drawn comparisons to Adam Graves at and around the 2009 Draft. At 6’1, 200lbs, it’s not hard to see why. Graves played most of his NHL career billed at 6’0, 205lbs. Werek played a similar combination game of physicality and scoring that didn’t put the comparison to Graves too far out of line. Yet the Rangers front office didn’t seem overly impressed by the time his second season in Junior was reaching its end. His season was repeatedly derailed by injuries, including a ligament tear in his wrist that he attempted to play through, and he capped off his season with a five-game suspension for an elbow-to-the-head, missing the final three games of the Fronts’ season, as well as their first two playoff games.

Lindberg, on the other hand, also owned a promising scouting report:

A very smart two-way center. Takes care of his defensive responsibilities, but also contributes offensively with good speed, technical skills and playmaking ability. Not an overly physical player, but he gets involved. Pretty good shot, but not a natural scorer. A team player who is good at faceoffs.
– Elite Prospects (2011)

That bit at the end about face-offs shouldn’t skate by understated. Playing against men in one of Europe’s most competitive professional leagues, Lindberg recorded the league’s best faceoff percentage in three straight seasons (63.4% in 2008-09, 60.4% in 2009-10, and 69.6% in 2010-11). What GM wouldn’t be impressed by numbers like that?

His total production was also noteworthy given the fact the SEL is a notoriously low-scoring and defensively-oriented league. In the 77 games he played with Skelleftea between 2009 and 2011, he had a total of 16 points. To put that into perspective, Marcus Johansson, the Landskrona, Sweden product taken by the Washington Capitals in the first round, 24th overall, of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft had 30 points in 87 games in the SEL before beginning his North American professional career.

While Werek projected as the better player of the two at the time, the Rangers saw a much brighter future in Lindberg—a future that’s continuing to pay dividends to this day. Lindberg is an important depth player for the Rangers. He has 13 goals and 18 assists for 31 points in 86 NHL games and his 53.5% Faceoff Win Percentage (FOW) trails only Mika Zibanejad (53.7%) this season among the Rangers’ centers.

Werek, now 25, never panned out and will probably never see regular NHL action. The Coyotes ultimately elected not to qualify him, making him an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2014. He’s currently contracted with the Texas Stars in the American Hockey League (AHL) and has yet to make his NHL debut.

For a team that has traded a slew of draft picks in recent years, these types of “something for nothing” deals are vital toward restocking the cupboards with NHL level players on RFA contracts. The Rangers essentially were able to replace Dominic Moore, who was making $1.5M per year for Lindberg, who makes just $650K.

The trade may never draw the kind of high-end recollection the aforementioned deals do, but it’s proven to be a landslide victory for the Rangers nonetheless and is a prime example of their deft abilities in identifying lesser known talents in Europe.

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