I recently wrote about how Derek Stepan’s trade to the Arizona Coyotes unequivocally signals the end of an era of Rangers hockey that will likely be remembered for its failure to win a Stanley Cup—a title not undeserved—but that still deserves praise for their efforts nonetheless. You can read that article here, but a deeper dive into the now Stepan-less Rangers, a little more than 72 hours removed from the news, has the future of the Blueshirts’ center depth in a haze of uncertainty. The biggest question being—who do they envision backfilling the crater that Stepan’s departure has created?
Make no mistake about it, whether you loved him or hated him, and though his last season in New York left much to be desired, Stepan played a vital role for multiple Rangers’ squads that went deep into the playoffs despite falling short of the finish line. His production over that time was synonymous—albeit on the lower-third of the spectrum—with first-line centers in today’s NHL. Comparisons to elite talents like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid might paint him in a poor light, but they’re also disingenuous, as he compared quite favorably with many of the NHL’s first-line center talents. He wasn’t a generational center, but he was a reliable player, whose ability to go up against the toughest competition in the NHL won’t easily be replaced.
In the last six seasons among NHL centers who averaged at least 18:00 TOI/GP, Stepan’s 315 points in 433 games (0.73 P/GP) are 17th league-wide, just behind Patrice Bergeron (334 in 443), and just ahead of Ryan O’Reilly (309 in 415). But beyond steady offensive production, Stepan was heavily relied on to skate against the NHL’s top competition and his defensive game truly justified him as a first-line player. In fact, no Rangers forward has played more minutes short-handed (634:33) in the last six seasons than Stepan.
Matters were complicated after the Vegas Golden Knights selected the Blueshirts’ fourth-line center, Oscar Lindberg, in their expansion draft. That selection, in addition to the Stepan trade, has left the Rangers down two regular centers — one with sizable shoes to fill (Stepan) and the other not quite unimportant, but easier to mitigate. To replace Lindberg, the Rangers will probably look within the organization to someone like Boo Nieves, who is arguably the only logical internal solution now that Marek Hrivik is off to free agency. Finding Stepan’s replacement is a much more difficult task, though. So let’s look at what options they do have to choose from.
Nieves, 23, could very well step in to fill the void left by Lindberg’s departure to the desert. He received a long look in training camp/preseason this past year and was one of the final Rangers cuts before the season began. Though the Wolfpack’s season was a record worst for the franchise, Nieves still managed to put together 18 points in 40 games for an unremarkable team who are themselves expected to see significant overhaul heading into 2017-18.
But Nieves is a fourth-line option at this point in his career which means if the Rangers want to look internally to find Stepan’s replacement, they’re going to be expecting Mika Zibanejad to step up to the task. It’s a job that Zibanejad should arguably have little problem handling from a production perspective. He has improved every season he’s completed in the NHL between his time with the Ottawa Senators and his first season as a Ranger, but there are question marks in his defensive game that there weren’t with Stepan which might limit his impact. Zibanejad played just 39:46 short-handed for the Rangers last season, averaging just 0:42 SH TOI/GP, matching the same short-handed TOI average he had with the Senators, who also opted for better defensive forwards for both their PK groups.
The ability to kill penalties isn’t, in and of itself, a measure of a player’s defensive ability, but it is often indicative of a coaching staff’s trust in playing that player in high-pressure situations. In this regard, it’s unlikely Zibanejad would buck the trend of his early career by becoming a penalty-killing staple, and that might give a little insight into how he might be deployed in similar high-pressure situations — a problem the Rangers never had with Stepan.
Gorton said he thinks Zibanejad, Hayes are top 6 guys so doesn't mean NYR must get a 1C or 2C to replace Stepan.Doesn't mean they won't tho.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) June 23, 2017
I still think the Rangers will try to add a 1C or 2C to keep Hayes at 3C. If thru a trade, it's a question of what they have to give up.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) June 23, 2017
Still, Gorton has said he thinks a combination of Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes could pick up the slack when asked about the trade and whether or not it put the Rangers in the market for another top-six center. He also didn’t rule it out, which brings us to free agency.
Jumbo Joe to Broadway?
This summer’s free agent class is a weak one. There are only a handful of high-impact players available, should they make it to July 1st, but there are a few options at center who might be of particular interest to the Rangers. At the top of that list has to be long-time San Jose Sharks former captain Joe Thornton.
The 38-year old has spent the last 12 years topping the NHL’s scoring charts as a member of the Sharks, but is coming off a significant knee injury (torn ACL and MCL) suffered during the Sharks opening round playoff loss to the Oilers this past spring. Despite the injury and his age, Thornton has shown considerable longevity well into this late thirties. He’s just a year removed from a point-per-game 82-point season in 2015-16, and his 0.63 P/GP this past season was comparable to Derek Stepan’s 0.68 P/GP that resulted in a 55-point season.
Lots of calls coming into Joe Thornton's camp, too. He wants a 3-year deal; will review each option/scenario accordingly.
— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) June 25, 2017
The real kicker with Thornton is the news that he’s looking for another three-year contract — a deal the Rangers would not be wise to agree to. At 38, Thornton, coming off a serious knee injury, and subject to the NHL’s over-35 clause that threatens to punish team’s who sign players 35 or older, should they retire with time remaining on their contracts, by forcing them to carry the salary cap charge regardless of the inactive status of the player. It’s a clause that, to my knowledge, no one has had to face yet, and I’m hard-pressed to think that someone of Thornton’s character would walk away in active retirement knowing the damage it would do to the team he signs with. Still, three years is one too many. In an ideal world, the Rangers and Thornton would agree to a one-year deal to allow him to stop-gap the loss of Stepan with a capable veteran who can alleviate some of the pressure bound for Zibanejad’s shoulders. But a two-year deal wouldn’t kill them. Three might, however. It would take Jumbo through to his 41st birthday.
Thornton has flirted with free agency before but chose to remain a Shark. Given the state of the team and his stature as a legacy member, it’s hard to imagine him walking away at this point in his career, but a stint with the Rangers isn’t without merit. Many of the game’s greats have used Broadway as a curtain call on their storied careers, and the Rangers still have Rick Nash to woo him with. Thornton has played with Nash internationally during lockouts, and in the Olympics for Team Canada.
So Hot Right Now, Hanzal
If not Thornton, perhaps the Rangers look to another player they’ve been linked to for years in 30-year old Czech center, Martin Hanzal. Hanzal has been remarkably consistent playing for a slew of especially poor Arizona Coyotes clubs over the last five years. Since 2013-14, he’s posted a P/GP pace of at least 0.62 in three straight years. Though Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold publicly regretted GM Chuck Fletcher’s decision to bring Hanzal in at the deadline given the heavy cost it came at, Hanzal paid immediate dividends posting 13 points in 20 regular season games and one point in five playoff games.
Martin Hanzal has also received plenty of attention today. Interested to see where he may end up.
— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) June 25, 2017
Like Stepan, Hanzal isn’t particularly gifted offensively. Though he finds his points just fine, he’s not the type to wow you in games through blazing speed (he doesn’t have it) or exceptional offensive flare. Also like Stepan, Hanzal is as defensively responsibleeee as they come. He’s an ace-in-the-hole at the dot and boasts some of the NHL’s best faceoff winning percentages of the last five seasons.
Among centers who played in at least 60 games last season, Hanzal was ninth in the league with a 56.4% face-off winning percentage (FOW%), and he’s second only to Boyd Gordon (57.9) over the last five years with an average FOW% of 56.1. Given face-offs were a particular weakness, at least perceived, for Stepan, this specific facet of Hanzal’s game would likely interest the Rangers should they choose to pursue him.
Hanzal would presumably slot in behind Zibanejad, allowing Kevin Hayes another year to develop in a moderately protected third-line center spot. He’d also give the Rangers an insurance card to play late in games when protecting a lead that they haven’t had since Dominic Moore was a member of the team. Late in a game, up by a goal, Hanzal’s about as good as it gets for a final draw to close out a close victory.
All Things Considered
While it’s admirable that Gorton appears to have as much faith in a Zibanejad/Hayes duo spearheading his top-six next season, the ancillary loss of Lindberg has a once deep Rangers center group at half its strength. No matter the level of confidence Gorton exudes, the Rangers would be wise to add at least a third-line center to their group to mitigate their losses. Contrary to popular belief, J.T. Miller is not a center, and shifting him back to the middle after years developing on the wing in which he just posted a career year could derail his progress. With $20-23M available to spend (Kevin Klein “retirement” to Europe pending), there’s little stopping the Rangers from at least exploring the market on free agent centers this summer. Though centers, like defensemen, are premiums every July, a short-term deal for Thornton or a mid-range deal for Hanzal shouldn’t break the bank, and given the sudden cavernous hole left in the wake of the losses of Stepan and Lindberg, the Rangers may not have much of a choice in the matter.