Is Third Time the Charm for Rangers and High-Stakes Draft Deal?

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

Back in early November, coming off a miserable 4-7-2 start to the year, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman noted in his 31 Thoughts column that the Rangers weren’t just ready to restock but apparently were ready to do it the right way. They feared “the dreaded middle” – that no man’s land of mediocrity that spans between a playoff contender and a lottery squad. After dealing Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes for the seventh overall pick (Lias Andersson) and Tony DeAngelo, they wanted more. Picks and prospects, that is.

Their ship’s course has righted since that awful start, but not so much as to instill a sense of hope that this roster has what it takes yet to compete for hockey’s ultimate glory. In fact, as of the time of this writing, they’re not even in the Eastern Conference playoff picture as their All-Star game break begins, trailing the final wild-card spot by a single point.

But this is a problem that a high-risk Draft day gamble might solve rather quickly. One the Rangers have attempted twice in the previous two drafts, ultimately coming up short. Perhaps the third time’s the charm?

Following the Stepan/Raanta deal with Arizona, TSN’s Darren Dreger noted from the Draft floor that the Rangers were attempting to wheel and deal a second time, this time to move the club into the top-five of the Draft. As it turns out, they were attempting to get into the top-three in order to select Cale Makar – a young, right-handed defenseman who projects to be a top-pairing blueliner. It didn’t materialize, but they were clearly going big fish hunting – a bold, but a righteous strategy for a team rebuilding “on the fly”.

But here’s the real kicker – they tried this exact same strategy a year prior at the 2016 Draft, as Jeff Marek recently revealed on the 31 Thoughts podcast:

“I had someone a few weeks ago talk to me about the Auston Matthews draft,” noted Marek. “And how the New York Rangers were either close to a deal or had a deal with the Edmonton Oilers for the fourth overall pick. That all went away after Pierre-Luc Dubois went third to Columbus. Everyone figured Jesse Puljujarvi was going to go third and that would leave four open for the Oilers to make their pick.”

Marek went on to suggest the Blueshirts had their eyes on USHL forward, Clayton Keller:

“The Rangers really wanted Clayton Keller – like really wanted Clayton Keller and were pushing hard to get that fourth overall pick figuring, ‘Hey, that’s going to be safe. We can get Keller there.’”

So while Jeff Gorton noted that his club was attempting a “rebuild on the fly” in July of 2017, it’s clear his aspirations date back well before that public admission. Logically, we could probably tie them back to the end of the Rangers’ 2015-16 season that saw the club embarrassingly exit the Stanley Cup Playoffs in just five games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. It was a series in which they were outscored by a 19-10 margin and blown out in the series’ final two games by a 5-0 and 6-3 count.

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Fast-forward to today and with no Makar or Keller to show for it, the Rangers appear to have swung and missed, twice. But they’re not down and out yet. Having gotten two good, close looks at the pitches they missed on, a third swing could finally land them the proverbial home run they’re after – perhaps to the tune of Brady Tkachuk or Filip Zadina.

Pulling this off would cost them a pretty penny, but unlike the window-jamming deals they’ve completed in the recent past, like say Keith Yandle, or Martin St. Louis, it might be a price well worth paying. The idea of trading a first-round pick is one fans would normally bristle at. They’re still feeling the effects of the Rangers’ failed attempts that cost the team it’s first-round picks for four consecutive years. But strategically moving one or two (more on this in a moment) to get the club into the top-five of this year’s draft could net them a cornerstone player to add to Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil—their two first-round selections from a year ago—which would really help, if not complete this rebuild on the fly to get the Rangers back to contention again.

It’s difficult to envision exactly the type of deal it might take to get the Rangers into the top-five of the draft. This season only recently passed it’s halfway mark, so it’s still largely unclear which teams will be where come the 2018 Draft. But that shouldn’t stop Jeff Gorton from proactively preparing for what June might bring by artfully dealing his pending Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) Rick Nash and Michael Grabner to contenders at the trade deadline. Each should easily return the Rangers a first-round selection, if not more. As TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported earlier this week on Insider Trading, Nash in particular, once he’s formally made available, would be seen alongside Evander Kane as the cream of the rental crop.

If the Blueshirts can add to their own first-round pick with two additional selections, albeit ones that will likely be later round choices (somewhere between 24th and 31st), they’ll have three opening round picks to barter with.

And if some combination of those selections isn’t enough to break into the top-five of the Draft, they’ve also got a few high-stakes chips they can play to assure them the player they might be after. Both Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello’s names have entered the rumor mill and could be on the move regardless.

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There’s also the future of J.T. Miller to consider here. In the second and final year of his bridge deal, Miller, who has arbitration rights, has just one year left of Restricted Free Agency (RFA) before he’s UFA eligible. That means that anything more than a one-year deal that would take him right to UFA at the age of 26, will purchase market value years from the 24-year old. With new deals also due this summer to other important RFAs like Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei, and Jimmy Vesey, the Rangers may wish to sell high on the Ohio native in order to sidestep the $5M+ AAV contract he’s destined to sign. Moving Miller along with the Rangers’ own first-round selection should easily allow them an entry-point to the top-end of the draft, and with two additional late-round picks (thanks to Nash and Grabner trades), they could still exit the draft with three picks. If you’re keeping score, that would total five first-round choices in two years.

Jeff Marek, who follows and values the Draft like few others, often talks about how missing on a first-round pick can set an organization back as much as five years. Despite a few key mitigating signings like Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes, that would mean the Rangers are really in the hole thanks to the loss of four consecutive opening-round selections (not to mention the McIlrath bust). But it also means the reverse also holds true. If each pick is worth five years, then alongside Hayes, Vesey, Andersson, and Chytil, the Rangers could move out from the red and into the black as soon as this coming June. And that’s not even accounting for other promising youngsters the team could grab at the deadline like Mike Valvano suggested.

To fully move from red to black, they’ll need to strike a high-stakes deal to do so, but with the 2018 Draft promising to be a deep one, and with highly-productive, potentially franchise-type forwards available at the top of it, the Rangers would be wise to place a big bet.

“It’s a bold strategy, Cotton – let’s see if it pays off for him!”
– Pepper Brooks

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