To state the obvious, the New York Rangers are no strangers to blockbuster trade deals. In just the last five years, they’ve been involved in five of them. Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Keith Yandle, Marian Gaborik, and Eric Staal—in name only—were all involved with the Blueshirts in sizable trade negotiations that, especially in the cases of all but Nash, lit the fuse for the NHL’s fireworks display at their respective trade deadlines. Conventional logic would tell you not to be surprised if they attempted another one this season given their early success. After all, bolstering this roster, particularly the defense, for the strongest possible playoff run does make a lot of sense. They have one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL which could possibly be tapped into to try to pry a valuable player their way, and it could even be justified through the lens of striking while the iron is hot and/or in not wanting to sacrifice another postseason opportunity for a now 34-year old Henrik Lundqvist. But that’s not the argument I’m going to make here. I actually think the wiser option is to take a more conservative approach.
Despite being linked to a number of high-profile defensemen including Jacob Trouba and given the generally high cost of trading for impact players—costs the Rangers have ponied up to pay for five straight seasons—it’s much smarter to be a bit more frugal this go–round. Below is a list of three right-handed defensemen, all of whom naturally play the right side of the ice, who I think the Rangers would be judicious to target this season prior to the deadline to strengthen their only real organizational weakness, and at a fraction of the cost they’d otherwise pay for a household name.
Cody Franson, 29, $3.325M AAV | Buffalo Sabres
Franson was on the path to becoming one of the aforementioned household names but in spite of his early success, he’s recently found himself re-defined as untrustworthy, which is strange given we’re talking about an offense contributing defenseman who can move the puck well, and who has 190 points in 474 games in his NHL career. He’s twice topped the 30-point bar with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013-14 and 2014-15. That 14-15 campaign, in fact, was one of his best production years. His 32 points that season came in just 55 games – a 0.58 P/GP pace that prorates to 48 points over an 82 game season. He was poised to sign one of the richest contracts as an Unrestricted Free Agent in the summer of 2015, yet somehow was passed over for months, eventually signing a rather shocking two-year/$6.65M contract with the Buffalo Sabres on September 10th, 2015.
In December of 2014, James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail penned an extensive column encouraging the Maple Leafs, who still had Franson under contract at the time, to make re-signing him a priority:
“Franson has also grown into a top pairing role, logging 275 of his 348 even strength minutes (80 percent) alongside captain Dion Phaneuf so far this year. Despite those minutes and some tough situations, when Franson has been on the ice, the Leafs have been a 50 percent possession team, nearly 4 percent better than when he’s on the bench. He drives play, and more than ever, teams are looking for that.”
They didn’t listen. Instead, they signed him to a one-year deal that took him directly to UFA status in July of 2015. 29 teams balked again, leaving Franson out in the cold until early September when the Sabres finally came knocking. His time there has been up-and-down and marred by a particularly bad concussion, but at just 29-years old and again facing the prospect of Unrestricted Free Agency this summer, he’s someone the Rangers would be keen to inquire about. The Sabres are going nowhere fast and will no doubt explore selling their UFA-to-be players, Franson included, as rentals. It’s unlikely the cost will be very high in a deal for him, but the Rangers should express interest early before any bidding wars might open up.
Dennis Wideman, 32, $5.25M AAV | Calgary Flames
Wideman is renowned these days for the cross-check he gave Don Henderson that earned him a massive 20-game suspension from the NHL (later reduced to 10 games by an independent arbitrator), but there’s more to the player than his reputation in this case. At 32 he’s looking at Unrestricted Free Agency this summer and plays for the currently second-to-last-place Calgary Flames, but he has a history of being a relatively productive player even as he continues to play on the wrong side of 30. In the last five seasons, this current season included, he has 123 points in 232 games – all with the Flames. That’s an average of 0.53 P/GP – good for 43 points over an 82 game season. Twice in the last three seasons, he’s operated with an individual PDO north of 100, and while his average CF% (47.2) and FF% (47.26) numbers are well south of 50% in that span, in a relegated role with the added benefit of zone starts (something the Flames are doing with him now), there’s still enough gas left in the tank to expect some benefit should the Rangers acquire him. Wideman is quite similar to the recently retired Dan Boyle in playing style. Especially the version of Boyle the Rangers had under contract for the final two years of his NHL career where they tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to still capitalize on his puck-moving skill and quick feet in spite of his struggling defensive-zone coverage and propensity for costly turnovers. It may not have worked out with Boyle, but it might yet with Wideman given he’s seven years younger than Boyle was when the Rangers signed him. That time could be all the difference between success and failure.
Michael Stone, 26, $4.0M AAV | Arizona Coyotes
Stone began the year on IR and has only played in five games for the Coyotes so far this year, but the right-side partner of Oliver Ekman-Larsson is an underrated minutes-eater and point-producer. Since joining Arizona as a regular in 2012-13, Stone has 87 points in 271 games played (0.32 P/GP, or 26 points over 82 games). Over the last three seasons in which he’s played the bulk of his games, he’s averaging 21:22 TOI/G skating on the Yotes’ top defensive pairing. For a poor Coyotes team that hasn’t made the playoffs since a miraculous run to the Western Conference Final in 2011-12, Stone has still managed to average a 48.3 CF% and a 47.9 FF% in the last three seasons. They’re below the desired 50% mark, like Wideman, but given the state of the Coyotes team he’s playing for, there’s reason to hope that a trade to a better-balanced, higher-scoring team (like the Rangers) would boost them.
There are two key factors to keep in mind with any acquisition the Rangers might attempt. The first is player cost. All three men have manageable contracts and are impending UFAs. If the decision to attempt to trade for any of them carries closer to the February 28th trade deadline, the Rangers should have plenty of available cap room to accommodate a deal. The second is the acquisition cost. With all three defenders playing for teams that are not likely to make the playoffs, it’s incumbent upon the Rangers to not pay ransom pricing for any of them. This is a rental situation, though it could have a bigger picture future if any of the three truly impress the Rangers’ front office. Long-term the Rangers are probably front-runners to sign current right-side, right-handed St. Louis Blues defenseman and pending UFA Kevin Shattenkirk, who they’ve been linked to for the last two seasons. Should both sides seek a deal to bring the New Rochelle, New York product home, he’d slot in nicely next to Ryan McDonagh. But for exactly that reason the Rangers would be foolish to trade for him ahead of free agency when he’d cost them nothing but money. If they need a refresher as to why that’s so important, they ought to look across the sporting aisle at their arena partners—the New York Knicks—who learned this lesson the hard way when they paid more than they should have to secure the services of Carmelo Anthony prior to free agency. The Knicks could have signed him without having to deal multiple players and draft picks but unreasonably did so for an early look at him in a Knicks uniform. I know, I know – “basketball isn’t hockey!”. I know. But the point stands despite the difference. It just makes more sense to be prudent this season. The Rangers can still dramatically improve their defensive depth in a deal for any of the players I listed here and they won’t have to sell the farm to get them. If for no other reason, it would be nice to cut the fans a break from the seemingly yearly race to give away another first-round pick. Keep it this time. Use it to draft the next Chris Kreider, or the next J.T. Miller, or the next Brady Skjei. And in the meantime deal from a position of strength to address the teams only visual weakness.