Should the Rangers Trade Michael Grabner?

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

When Rangers GM Jeff Gorton signed Michael Grabner on July 1st, 2016, I’m not sure even he thought the return on investment would be this good. As the Rangers have officially eclipsed the halfway point in the season, Grabner, 29, has 19 goals in 41 games. His goal scoring totals put him in a five-way tie for sixth in goals scored with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, Montréal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson, and Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak.

All 19 of his goals have been scored at even strength, too, which leads the league while putting him ahead of rookie phenom Auston Matthews (18) and the league’s single worst blueprint for growing a proper playoff beard, Sidney Crosby (17).

This scoring rate has him on pace to finish with nearly 40 goals (38) should this rate of production hold true through the end of the NHL calendar year. In fact, should the fleet-of-foot-Austrian eclipse 30 goals this season, it would mark the first time he’s done so since 2010-11—more than six years ago while he was still a member of the rival New York Islanders at the young age of 23.

It’s not just Grabner’s scoring that’s significant, either. His contract is equally impactful. The two-year, $3.3M pact he signed with the Rangers is worth just $1.65M per season. That incredibly low AAV has helped to cement his position as one of the league’s best bang-for-buck signings of the summer, perhaps second only to Blue Jackets forward Sam Gagner (whose resurgence has him on pace for what could end up being a career-high 30-goal season) or Florida Panther’s forward Jonathan Marchessault (a former Rangers camp invite who is on pace for 54 points).

So why on earth should the Rangers even entertain the idea of trading him? Well, because ultimately they may not have much of a choice in the matter due to the looming Vegas expansion rules that threatens to rob Broadway’s best of one of their best.

A few months ago I wrote a column here speaking to the fact that one way or another, the Rangers were going to lose a very good player in the coming Vegas expansion draft. In it, I mentioned Grabner by name as one of the bigger threats to lose, in large part due to the success he’s found with the Rangers this season:

So why risk losing such an important, productive player? Because keep in mind that the Rangers have a limited number of protection selections they can make, and there are arguably more important forwards here who can offer the team more value over a longer period of time than Grabner can. He’s done a bang-up job, but younger impact forwards like Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller mean more in the franchise’s bigger picture.

Fast forward to today and little has changed. Grabner is still a powerful force behind the Rangers resurgent penalty kill, currently 10th in the NHL at 83%, and his scoring, as mentioned earlier, is still team-leading. Yet the situation surrounding him is also the same, and that’s where the conflict comes into play.

As Larry Brooks also pointed out in his recent column championing Grabner while outlining the problem his production can create this summer, the Rangers are almost certainly going to opt to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender from exposure to Bill Foley’s Golden Knights. Conventional logic presumes these forwards to be the same group Brooks conjured up that includes Rick Nash (NMC), Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes.

There’s simply no easy means of including Grabner. Not without making a significant change to that forward group. The only way to protect Grabner through this route would be to trade one of these other players in order to open a forward slot to use on him instead. Which begs the question—who are you cutting out to keep the soon-to-be 30-year old?

It’s not an easy question to answer because history tells us despite the revelation he’s been this season, it’s not likely to repeat. Not at this rate, at least. He’s still shooting at an abnormally high 22.1%—a number that the league’s leading goal-scorers don’t operate anywhere near over the full breadth of an NHL season—and because of this, it’s arguably more important to protect the aforementioned group of forwards instead, despite the tremendous success he’s found as a first-year Ranger. That young collection of forwards simply offers the Blueshirts more in both promise and potential in the bigger picture. It’s not a slight against Grabner. It’s just a matter of logistics in accounting for tomorrow.

Brooks posited that “the Rangers either are going to have to trade one of the aforementioned seven projected protected forwards — and by June 17 — or they will be obligated to expose their current leading goal-scorer for claim in an expansion draft”. But that is only true if you conveniently ignore the fact that another option exists—trading Grabner himself.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that trading Grabner at this point might be a Goldilocks zone moment. Should the stars align, the Rangers could, in theory, sell him while his stock is arguably at the highest point of his career, with one year remaining on his contract, just as he’s entering his thirties—a period in a player’s career where most skaters begin a noticeable downward trend in production. The best show only a gradual decline from that point on, but it’s an important line of demarcation that earnest NHL general managers routinely draw a soft line in the sand at.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t speak to the fact that dealing Grabner would increase the likelihood that one of Antti Raanta, Nick Holden, or Jesper Fast are take by the Golden Knights instead, not to mention the fact that any trade the Rangers do pull off would need to be for a returning player or players who are ineligible for the draft themselves. After all, what use is there in trading Grabner for a player who will effectively take his place at the top of the risk chart for Vegas’ pending expansion plans?

Regardless, the Rangers don’t have much choice in this matter. None of the solutions to the pending problem are going to feel good, but selling high could net the Rangers a nice return package for an asset they arguably have to move lest they risk losing him for nothing. And make no bones about it—losing him for nothing would hurt far more than trading him for assets they could use going forward without him. There’s no guarantee that the Golden Knights would select him but leaving him exposed is a high-risk gamble they’d be wise not to test.

Trading him ahead of the expansion draft storm might actually be the most sensible outcome here. Could a team be convinced to part ways with a first-round pick for the speedster, for example? Maybe a combination of second or third-round picks and a prospect or two? The Rangers could surely benefit from either.

Goals are at a premium in this league, and scoring 30 of them in a season is no easy feat. Only 28 players scored 30 or more last season, and only 15 players scored 30 or more the season prior. It’s rare these types of players hit the open market, and when they do, they tend to get offered exorbitant dollars and term to bring their talents to a new city. Getting your hands on a 30-goal scorer who costs just $1.65M against your salary cap is a dream scenario 29 other NHL general managers (soon to be 30) would no doubt desire to pull off. But, just how much would they be willing to give to get one like Grabner? Would acquiring Grabner complicate their own projection lists?

For now, it’s a problem the Rangers can continue to ignore, but as we draw closer to the close of the NHL season and closer to the Vegas draft, I would expect the Rangers, at the very least, to entertain the idea. It’s not an ideal scenario, but it could offer a silver lining with far more value than the risk of losing him for nothing.

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