Successful Trade Deadline Sets Rangers on Right Track for Rebuild

After many years of mortgaging the future for the present, Jeff Gorton did the exact opposite this year, as he parted with some key roster players in order to recoup prospects and draft picks, signifying the official start of the Blueshirts’ rebuild. Prior to the trade deadline, Ranger fans endured weeks of speculation and anticipation, that was triggered by a letter sent by Gorton to the Blueshirt Faithful warning them of the imminent rebuild. Following the underwhelming return that the Rangers received in dealing Derek Stepan this past offseason, Gorton was being doubted by many, but he stood by his promise and conducted the necessary fire-sale. We can only hope that he has now begun piecing together the foundation of a group that can accomplish more than the perennial Stanley-Cup-contending squad that has now been torn apart, and achieve the ultimate goal of bringing Lord Stanley’s cup back to Broadway.

The action started on Tuesday afternoon, when the Rangers sent Nick Holden to the Boston Bruins, for a 2018 3rd round draft pick, and defenseman Rob O’Gara. For a Rangers team that has a somewhat barren farm system and is beginning a rebuild, it was important to acquire as many draft picks as possible prior to the February 26th deadline. While O’Gara is with the Rangers at the moments, he will most likely spend the majority of his time in the big apple as part of the Hartford Wolfpack. As for Holden, he had a shaky tenure with the Blueshirts. He put together a promising 34 point season a year ago, but his play started to decline during the playoffs, where his partnership with Marc Staal became a liability on the ice. This season he was vaulted to first-pair duty alongside Ryan McDonagh, where he has quite simply looked overmatched and out of place, playing against the top-dogs of the Metropolitan Division. Considering Holden came to New York at the cost of a 4th round pick and they were able to flip him for a third rounder, I would consider this move a success for Jeff Gorton.

The Blueshirts were just getting things started when the parted with Nick Holden, as just two days later, management shipped Michael Grabner to the New Jersey Devils, completing what remarkably was the first ever trade between the two franchises. In return, the Blueshirts acquired KHL defensive-prospect Igor Rykov and a 2018 second round pick. Although it seemed the lack of buyers stopped the Rangers from receiving a first round pick for a guy who has 52 goals in the last season and a half, you can’t be unhappy with the return here. Grabner is only a rental player, and Gorton was still able to come away with what should be a high pick in the second round which is invaluable to the team while they’re in the state that they’re currently in. Likewise, Rykov is a player with high potential, and a guy that the front office has been very high-on for a while. Grabner will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, offering the Rangers a chance to bring him back if interested; however this time it will definitely cost more than the 1.65 million dollars per year he was given back when he came to New York in the 2016 offseason.

Jeff Gorton and Don Sweeney weren’t done dealing after the Holden transaction, as the B’s emerged as the big winners of the Rick Nash sweepstakes, but they had to pay hefty a price. Gorton was able to work some magic on this one, as he brought back quite the haul. In this trade, the Blueshirts started by adding a first round draft pick. As mentioned earlier, if the Blueshirts want to complete a successful rebuild, it’s necessary that they stockpile high draft picks, and execute with them. Furthermore, Nash fetched the Rangers former 2016 second round pick, Ryan Lindgren. Lindgren is a defenseman playing for the University of Minnesota. He’s a big-hitting mobile guy, but he’s definitely is more of a stay at home D-man, with limited offensive upside. Lindgren will hopefully develop into a second or third pairing defenseman for the Rangers. Additionally, the Blueshirts came away with a young versatile forward in Ryan Spooner. The 26-year-old is having a nice season, with 27 points in 40 games, and looked great in his Rangers debut, registering 2 assists. Spooner is a nice fit with the Blueshirts, as he can play anywhere up-front and can contribute on the power-play, with the only drawback being that he will become a restricted free agent this offseason, where we will see if he’s part of Jeff Gorton’s long-term plans. The lesser parts of the deal were the acquisitions of enforcer Matt Beleskey, who was essentially just a throw-in for salary cap purposes, and a 2019 7th round pick. Although it is sad to see Nash’s tenure on Broadway end, props to Jeff Gorton on this one. He was able to bring back quite the group considering all he gave up was a rental player, especially when it was one who is rumored to be interested in returning to New York this offseason.

Now for the blockbuster. Just as it looked like the Rangers were done making moves, they surprised us all with a last-second deal to send Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay for prospects Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, roster player Vlad Namestnikov, and a 2018 first round pick, along with a 2019 conditional first round pick (becomes a second round pick if Tampa Bay doesn’t win the Stanley Cup in the next 2 seasons). Until we see how good these two prospects become, it’s very hard to judge this deal because there are so many uncertainties and moving parts. The way I look at it, there are really two separate deals: A Miller and Namestnikov swap, and McDonagh for prospects and picks. Namestnikov and Miller is a pretty even exchange. Both guys can play all three forward-positions, both are former first round picks, they have a one year age difference (Namestnikov is a year older), and both were signed to two year ‘bridge-deals’ in the 2016 offseason, therefore both will become restricted free agents and will be looking for a raise, come this summer. Miller has 40 points in 63 games this season, while Namestnikov has 44 points in 62 contests.

Now we look at the prospects. The Rangers added another young defenseman in Libor Hajek. Hajek projects to a solid top-four defenseman, and is a former second round pick of the Bolts. The 20-year-old D-man currently plays for the Regina Pats of the WHL, where he has registered 35 points in 52 games this season. Hajek also played for the Czech in this year’s World Junior Championships, where he was very impressive, as he anchored their defense and also totaled 8 points in 7 games. The other prospect the Blueshirts acquired, is center, Brett Howden, Tampa Bay’s 27th overall pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft. Howden also plays in the WHL, and he serves as the captain of the Moose Jaw Warriors. The big centerman is in the midst of a strong season, in which he has 58 points in 38 games. Similarly to Hajek, Howden played in the World Junior Championships, winning a gold medal while representing his home country of Canada. The 19-year-old played a big role in Canada’s success, as he notched 7 points in 7 games. Howden has the potential to be a very effective two-way center. Moreover, acquiring all of these draft picks is extremely valuable, and will help accelerate the Rangers’ return to relevancy, as they now have 7 picks in the first three rounds of this year’s draft, which is being regarded as a very deep one. When looking at it this way, the Rangers got a totally viable return in this trade, but I would’ve loved to see them get more. It was a trade that needed to be made by Gorton, as it wouldn’t have been ideal to give Ryan McDonagh the long-term extension that he’ll be looking for when he hits free agency at age 30 following the 2018-2019 season. The departure of McDonagh marks the second time the Rangers have dealt their captain to Tampa Bay in the last 4 years, as he will become the 5th former Blueshirt to join the Lightning’s current roster.

With the deadline behind us, only a few questions remain. One has to wonder what the future holds for Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault, now that the Blueshirts have completely re-worked their roster, with it now consisting almost entirely of young players. Vigneault has always had a reputation of leaning on trusty veterans, so we’ll see what happens this offseason, but my best guess is that Gorton decides to start anew, and finishes off the fire-sale by dismissing Alain Vigneault along with Scott Arniel and Lindy Ruff. The final question, who becomes the next captain of the Blueshirts? My money’s on Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, or Brady Skjei.

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