Replacing Kreider Won't Be Easy

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

Don’t look now, but we’re officially on the precipice of 2018. The Winter Classic is behind us, and before we know it, the February 26th trading deadline will be here. Having lost Chris Kreider for at least two months thanks to a blood clot in his arm, the Rangers’ deadline plans have surely been thrown a proverbial monkey wrench. However, it would be foolish to expect them not to do anything about replacing someone as valuable as Kreider as the deadline horizon narrows.

Despite their tumultuous start to this season, the Rangers have clawed their way back into the playoff picture, having held relatively firm ground in the Eastern Conference wild-card race for the last number of weeks. It’s a position many presumed they’d be competing for before the season started, and one they were likely to remain in with Kreider healthy. His loss doesn’t immediately threaten their security, but with a minimum recovery period of two months to deal with, their long-term playoff stability will probably require a trade to maintain. In fact, if Kreider is out even longer, the value of bringing in another scoring weapon only increases. Namely, because the Rangers are built to be a high-flying, high-scoring team (they’re currently eighth in GF/GP at 3.10) who leave much to be desired defensively and often overly rely on elite goaltending to keep them in many games.

23-year old Vinni Lettieri, who was called up in the immediate wake of the injury announcement, looked great in his NHL debut, but how comfortable do the Rangers feel with him as a full-time stand-in? As I wrote in this week’s Quick Hits, Lettieri’s shoot-first mentality does give the Rangers an element they generally lack on this roster, and he was leading the Hartford Wolf Pack in goals prior to the recall, but it’s right to question if that will translate completely at the NHL level.

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There’s also Filip Chytil to consider. The 19-year old, who has performed well for both the Wolf Pack and the Czech Republic during the current World Junior Championship in Buffalo, has played both center and left wing in his career. But with just two NHL games of shaky quality under his belt, tapping him to play in such a lofty role is probably not a good idea. The Rangers must keep his long-term development in mind, and in his case, that progress is probably best developed in the AHL, which helps to produce more NHL talent than any other league.

Instead, for better quality assurance all around, the Rangers are better served by a trade.

It would go without saying, but Kreider, who was tied for second in goals and third in points among Rangers’ skaters at the time of his injury, isn’t an easy player to replace. His combination of size, speed, and net-front presence make him a rarity in the league, and one of the Rangers’ most important forwards because of it. His speed, most of all, was a recurring nightmare for opposing defense to stay in front of. His deployment against slow-footed defenders often resulted in numerous odd-man rushes and extended offense zone time thanks to his ability to quickly get behind them. Finding all of these qualities in one player is a cumbersome task, but there may be some options available worth exploring:

Le ciel et la terre?

One option who might be the closest to reproducing Kreider’s scoring production is Montréal Canadiens captain, Max Pacioretty – a player Darren Dreger mentioned in October that the Rangers “would probably move heaven and earth to get”. According to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, Marc Bergevin is actively shopping the 29-year old in the hopes of adding a younger scoring forward in return.

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Since his breakout 32-goal season in 2011-12, Pacioretty is 8th among NHL skaters with 164 goals and sixth in even-strength goals with 118. Though he’s having a down year on a low-scoring Canadiens team this year, he’s scored 30 or more goals in each of his last four seasons. And all of this has come at a discount rate of $4.5M against the cap, having signed a six-year, $27M extension with the Canadiens in August of 2012.

With one more year left on the deal before he’s eligible for Unrestricted Free Agency (UFA), he’s one of Bergevin’s best trade chips. However, that’s exactly why the Rangers need to be especially cautious in any negotiations for him. Having given up multiple assets and first-round draft picks for rental players over the last five years, they know all too well the cost of doing that kind of business consistently. But depending on what Bergevin’s idea of “young scorer” actually means, there may be wiggle room here.

Perhaps Jimmy Vesey—on pace to score 17 goals this year—could be part of a reasonable package? Or maybe the Rangers go the blockbuster route and move J.T. Miller in a trade that could be seen as helping the team maintain playoff position while sidestepping the big-money extension Miller is almost sure to sign this summer with just one year of Restricted Free Agency (RFA) left. It’s also possible the Rangers could further entice the Canadiens to play ball by offering up one or two of their defensive prospects, which currently includes 2014 first-round draft pick Anthony DeAngelo as well as 19-year old Sean Day, among others. In fact, DeAngelo could prove vital here in the wake of Montréal moving Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin last June.

The downside to this type of trade, of course, is that the Blueshirts would sacrifice on age while only being guaranteed one more season of Pacioretty’s services. From an on-ice perspective, it’s important to point out that he also only really fills the scoring issue and would fail to bring the same physical edge or foot speed lost with Kreider’s injury. It’s not exactly apples to apples, but it’s hard to imagine the Rangers won’t inquire. They’ve wanted him for years, and this is arguably their best opportunity to acquire him without paying market price (yet).

Kane Do Attitude

By the time you’ll read this, the Rangers will have had an up close and personal look at a player who might come closest to filling Kreider’s skates – Buffalo Sabres forward and pending UFA, Evander Kane.

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The Sabres are bad again this season. Their minus-42 goal differential is second only to the Arizona Coyotes (minus-52), but Evander Kane (along with Jack Eichel) has been a rare bright spot on another dark year. In 38 games, Kane has tallied 15 goals and 34 points, pacing a 32-goal, 70-plus point year. He’s also one of just two of the Sabres’ regular forwards to boast a positive corsi for percentage (50) and leads them in expected goals for percentage (50.68). Though it’s important to note that he is playing with a significant zone start differential (61.3 offensive zone start percentage to 38.7 defensive zone start percentage) – the strongest of his career to date.

Still, Kane’s production isn’t the only box he’d check in alleviating the loss of Kreider. Beyond the points, he’d come with ancillary benefits including his blazing speed and a natural aggression that would dwarf Kreider’s edge.

The biggest hold up here will almost certainly be the cost of acquisition. Kane is poised to be one of the Sabres’ biggest assets ahead of the deadline and they’re in no position to accept any deal for him worth 70 cents on the dollar. With a rebuild in dire need of dramatic progress, Kane will probably be an expensive rental – one the Rangers might quickly be priced out on if the asking price is, say, Filip Chytil or Lias Andersson, plus. But, like the Canadiens, the still rebuilding Sabres would probably see a lot of value in the aforementioned DeAngelo, or a more stabilizing defensive prospect like Neal Pionk or Ryan Graves. Both Pionk and Graves ranked in the top-ten of Adam Herman of BlueshirtBanter.com’s Prospect Rankings this past summer.

Return of the Duke?

In his Slapshots column for the New York Post, Larry Brooks floated the idea of the Rangers re-acquiring Anthony Duclair, who is also actively being shopped by the struggling Arizona Coyotes – a team the Rangers often trade with.

It is not as if I’d relinquish a valuable asset to acquire him, but in the wake of the news Chris Kreider will be sidelined for at least two months and perhaps much longer than that, it would seem to make sense for the Rangers to check on the price of bringing Anthony Duclair back to Broadway for a look-see.

There’s that age-old question about Duclair’s ability to bring it on a consistent basis, but the 22-year-old — with seven goals in 30 games and a handful of healthy scratches in the desert — has top-end skill in a league that rewards it, and the AHL Wolf Pack isn’t exactly overflowing with NHL-ready talent up front.

Like Pacioretty (but with none of the pedigree), Duclair would also only really check the box on scoring. Maybe. After a productive first season in the desert in which it appeared Duclair had truly found his game, posting 20 goals and 44 points in 81 games, whatever progress he made he has seemingly unmade, scoring just 12 goals split across 88 games from 2016 to date.

The cost of acquiring him should be fairly low, and at the age of 22, there may still be a window to tap into the potential he’s shown in the recent past. But there’s a reason the Coyotes—a team who need all the help they can get—are willing to move on from him. Not to mention, with the Rangers angling as a wild-card playoff team where games are expected to get tighter and more competitive as the season advances, adding a player whose work ethic and consistency have been questioned by a second NHL team probably isn’t an adequate answer to the missing Kreider piece. Any deal here might still pay dividends down the line, but as Brooks hinted at himself, the team this might benefit most is the Hartford Wolf Pack.

USA Hockey is Do or Die

With the Minnesota Wild sitting just one point out of the final Western Conference wild-card spot, Jeff Gorton might also wish to give GM Chuck Fletcher a call to determine just how amenable he is to moving 25-year old Jason Zucker – a former World Junior Championship teammate of Kreider’s (2010) and J.T. Miller (2012).

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Zucker, who plays both wings, is a pending RFA playing out the second year of a two-year bridge deal worth $2M per season. He’s also on pace for a 32-goal campaign, with 15 goals in 39 games this season. Though he doesn’t have the same size as Kreider, he does play with the same combination of quick skating and skill that would help the Rangers fill the void.

The right deal—perhaps one to help improve Minnesota’s 16th ranked power play—might just put the Wild over the edge and into the playoff picture while giving the Rangers the long-term stability they need to maintain their own positioning. Finding a player-for-player deal that works for both teams here is difficult, but the pressure Fletcher probably feels of needing to make the playoffs (and make an impact in them) could be an X-factor in the equation at or much closer to the deadline. Especially if the Wild remain on the outside looking in. Under Fletcher, Minnesota has not advanced beyond the first round in the Western Conference playoffs in the last four years. That pressure could be a foot in the door for prying away such an effective young player. For the Rangers, DeAngelo could prove useful in a deal here as well. Though he’s currently in the minors, in his brief NHL career thus far he’s shown some promise in quarterbacking a power play. Perhaps Gorton could convince the Wild that he’d be a better look on their second pairing than Mike Reilly, who has just three power play points on the season.

There’s always the chance that the Rangers find trade negotiations too steep for their liking and opt to do nothing, promoting internally instead (like bumping Jesper Fast up in the lineup to backfill), but a trade for a scoring forward would fare much better on the scoresheet. And with a fair amount of runway left between now and the trade deadline to work the phones and gauge the market, Gorton has a window to work in without needing to rush. Though Kreider’s shoes are large ones to fill, the Rangers will need to fill them if they want to not only make the playoffs but advance in them. So, the sooner they strike a deal, the sooner they can stabilize their current positioning, and when Kreider eventually returns, they’ll be locked and loaded for a run at glory.

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