Play Along with the Rangers' Rebuild

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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With the New York Rangers first asking upcoming Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) Rick Nash for his list of 12 teams he would accept a trade to thanks to his Modified No-Trade Clause (M-NTC) and then, in an unprecedented move, formally announcing that the team was fundamentally flawed and essentially giving up on the 2017/18 season, it is time for every true Rangers’ fan to put on their General Manager’s hat and try to figure out the best path through the maze and pitfalls of rebuilding an NHL team in the salary cap era.

It’s tempting to just start randomly dialing up rival GMs whose teams are still in the playoff hunt to see what they’d fork over for a resurgent Michael Grabner or a slightly used, but still serviceable Rick Nash and throw in 50% salary retention in for good measure to help your counterpart manage their own salary cap snafus. But put down your phone for a moment and think about the big picture before you start making decisions that might complicate things down the road.

The first thing you have to consider here is what kind of rebuild path are you taking. Not all rebuilds are the same and much depends on your short-term tolerance for pain. Do you want to be competitive again as soon as next season? Then you probably have to take Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello off the trade table. Or are you going completely scorched earth? While it’s easy to start with dumping the upcoming UFAs right away, that may not be the best way to leverage all of your assets.

Multi-year Rebuild? Multi-year Rebuild!

I recommend throwing away the 2018/19 season too, instead looking at 2019/20 as the start of the uphill climb back into contention. That means as down as this season is, the roller coaster continues to descend next year before hitting rock bottom. This also lets us formulate an asset management outlook that sees the following players as expendable trade value (no, Cody McLeod or Paul Carey don’t make the cut):

Rick Nash (expiring UFA, $7.8M)
Ryan McDonagh (one full remaining year, $4.7M)
Mats Zuccarello (one full remaining year, $4.5M)
Michael Grabner (expiring UFA, $1.65M)
Nick Holden (expiring UFA, $1.65M)
David Desharnais (expiring UFA, $1M)

Nash, Grabner, Holden and Desharnais are no-brainers. Bye-bye. An expected haul from those players would be in the range of two firsts, two thirds and a decent prospect (thanks, Nash). The easy part of all of this is done, though. While I understand the argument for holding out on McDonagh and Zuccarello, unless the Rangers get exactly the package they are looking for in return as both will have value at the NHL Entry Draft in addition to at the trade deadline, they would lose out on the rental value portion of their contracts. With McDonagh, the number of teams with interest likely won’t get much deeper at the draft, considering he has an M-NTC which lets him select ten teams he would not accept a trade to. That list would likely contain the bottom tier teams, so he won’t likely help the Rangers move up higher in the draft just by trading him to a team with a better pick. Zuccarello has no such trade protection, but he also is having a tough season that won’t likely improve given the Rangers’ sell-off. In other words, his value can only go down.

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OK, so I’m shipping all those guys out by the deadline unless the McDonagh and Zuccarello offers are complete lowballs. But my job isn’t done there. I still need a strategy, and here’s what I’m thinking. Trade McDonagh at least a week before the trade deadline, with 50% salary retention. I know, that’s not how you maximize a bidding war when there’s a deadline that teams have to fight towards, but as likely our best trade chip, him going to a top contender severely changes the playoff landscape. Whether it’s in the East, where moving him to Tampa, Boston, or Toronto, or to the West to Vegas, Nashville, or Winnipeg, it almost forces the other two teams to respond in kind. This increases the value of the other assets we have. Let’s say Winnipeg gets McDonagh. Nashville probably comes calling after Nash, considering there’s already smoke there. And Vegas has to be feeling pretty for real right about now, so they will need to counter as well. The East would play out much the same way. I know it’s difficult to think of McDonagh as chum in the water, but he could easily launch the kind of frenzy that helps the Rangers clear out the cupboards at maximum value.

If the Rangers move both McDonagh and Zuccarello, figure on at least two more first-round-picks, plus a team’s top prospect come back. For those keeping score, we’re up to four first-round-picks, two third-round picks, plus two prospects. But wait, there’s more.

We also have to seriously consider what value players with two full years left under contract have to us versus what we might get by trading them too. That list is significantly smaller, consisting of just Chris Kreider ($4.625M) and Jesper Fast ($1.85M). Kreider and Fast will be 28 in the final year of their deals, that same year we’re looking to climb back out of the depths of NHL lottery team purgatory. That climb won’t be as an immediate contender, most likely though. So it’s still a transition year. I would move Kreider (another first, plus top prospect) and keep Fast. Kreider would fetch significant assets that will help with the rebuild. I’m not so sure I’d want to re-sign a 29-year-old Kreider to a big money contract, and as a UFA at that point, we can always revisit it on the open market. I keep Fast as the model for the type of effort and accountability I want out of the young players we’ll be bringing in and because I don’t think the value you’d get in a return (a second-round pick and lower prospect) would be significant enough. If he holds up and we don’t want to retain him near the end of his deal, he’ll still fetch some return as a rental down the road.

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So to recap, on the way out are McDonagh, Zuccarello, Kreider, Nash, Grabner, Holden and Desharnais. What we’re getting is five first-round picks in the draft, a couple of third-round picks and a few prospects of varying skills. That gives us six (!) first-round picks – nearly one-fifth of the first-round class. Or we get the ability to package picks to move higher, once the draft lottery plays out.

Assets managed

Let’s look at who we’re keeping to build around. Mika Zibanejad, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, Tony DeAngelo, John Gilmour and of course Henrik Lundqvist. That’s not a top end core of players outside of an aging Hank, but it’s a pretty good foundation if the Rangers can continue to add through prospect acquisition. Competing to join them will be a pretty decent crop of prospects, in Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Vinni Lettieri, and Ty Ronning at forward, Neal, Pionk, Sean Day on defense, and goaltending prospects Igor Shesterkin, Alexander Georgiev Adam Huska and Tyler Wall.

The top-end talent necessary to become competitive again will have to come through the draft, starting with the selections of Chytil and Andersson last year and from the slew of picks and any top end prospects acquired in the sell-off along with the Rangers’ own draft picks. Speaking of Chytil and Andersson, I know you want to see them called up to play like yesterday, but the shrewd move is to let them continue to make their bones in Hartford and then bring them up for the last handful of games this season to give them a taste of the NHL while not burning a year off of their Entry-Level Contracts (ELC). They can both then compete for spots out of camp next year.

Make no mistake, it’s going to suck in the short-term. The rest of this season only has meaning in regards to how low the team can finish to increase their draft lottery odds. As bad as this season has been, next season figures to be worse. While we’re shooting at the 2019/20 season to start climbing, that might still not be a playoff season and certainly won’t be a contending one. Even a team that’s fast-forwarded their rebuild as the Toronto Maple Leafs are still somewhat long-shots for a Cup run this year. But if the teardown is complete and the rebuilding process is done with patience, Rangers fans might not have to wait a lifetime for another parade down the Canyon of Heroes.

P.S. I almost forgot – fire Alain Vigneault before you start reading this article. Or if you haven’t yet, go do it now. We’ll let whichever of Scott Arniel and Lindy Ruff win the coin toss be the interim head coach to finish out the season and then start a search in earnest for a rebuilding type coach in the summer.

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