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Could Zack Kassian Be An Option For The Rangers?

As the NHL heads towards mid-season rosters solidify and front offices look to improve their teams and/or shed salaries where they have identified a clear need for change. Naturally, the rumor mill starts to spin its creaking wheel, slowly churning out bits of this or that into the media stream. Some of the bits and pieces are intentionally released and verifiable. They come from organization sources who want to test the waters, for one reason or another. Others are more unsubstantiated and the result of media-driven think-tanking, more than anything else. Still others are completely unfounded and literally make no sense.

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It's fun to sift through NHL rumors and get the conversation started on how to improve teams, either for now, or for the future. The 2014-15 New York Rangers, in particular, figure to be a heavy influence in the trade rumor mill. With the mix of cap considerations, expiring contracts, potentially steep paydays for name-brand players, and a need to improve the defense all in play, this could get interesting.

To wit, Elliotte Friedman included a juicy little tidbit in his always fun "30 Thoughts" column for Sportsnet.ca. It didn't deal directly with the Rangers, or the Vancouver Canucks, and was more related to the Boston Bruins and their burgeoning waistline. But it is still relevant to both teams and worthy of consideration. Keep in mind, the article deals with some relatively unsubstantiated rumors, and often is exactly what the title suggests; thoughts. But Friedman is an insider and he isn't usually careless, even with idle chatter. Still, this is merely a conversation starter.

In his piece, Friedman posits that Zack Kassian may be on the trade block, as the Canucks try to beef up their defense, increase team offensive speed (they are woefully slow) and find players that head coach Willie Desjardins feels comfortable giving more of a go in his preferred up-tempo systems. Other news sources have also mentioned Kassian, most notably The Province. Friedman suggests Kassian would be a solution for the Bruins' cap woes and that Jim Benning, former AGM of the Bruins, could target one of the many prospects he has personal knowledge of in their system.

As many of you know, I write occasionally on the Vancouver Canucks over at nucksmisconduct.com, and watch as many Western Conference games as I can. Additionally, a few of our readers here, and readers there, have bandied about potential trade options, often including Kassian for Rangers players. It is an intriguing thought and one worth examining a bit further.

Zack Kassian is a 23 year old, 6'3" 215lbs right winger and former 13th overall pick (Buffalo) currently playing with the Canucks. He originally came over to the Canucks when Buffalo traded for Cody Hodgson. He has been shelved for the past month due to a broken finger and for several reasons, has hit a bit of a development wall this season in Vancouver.

Last year, his first full season in the NHL, he amassed 29 points (28 5v5), including 14 goals, in 73 games while averaging just 12:56 of TOI per game. He was a rare depth bright spot on a team that absolutely struggled to score down the stretch and only put up 2.15 G/60 (19th) on the season.  His 1.91 P/60 led the team, he ran at a respectable 51% Corsi For % (CF%), and was a positive CF% player even while carrying Brad Richardson as a possession anchor. Richardson ran at 50.2% with Kassian, and a paltry 44.7% without him. by all accounts Kassian was coming into his own.

Kassian comes cheap. He is currently on a $1.75m AAV (average annual value) RFA contract through 2015-16 and would remain a controllable RFA asset after it expires. He has a great set of hands and scoring touch, as well as the frame to play around the net. He's big and nimble, and toolsy, a rare commodity in the size-stunted Eastern Conference. While not "fast," per se, when his game is on he plays with an aggressive edge that would likely endear him to fans. He is a comfortable puck carrier and makes passing, and pass receiving, look natural. He has an underrated release on his shot but sometimes has a tendency to hit the goalie in the chest. He won't kill you defensively.

He got buried early in the season, in particular, because the Canuck's second line of Chris Higgins, Nick Bonino and Alex Burrows found pre-season chemistry. The second line was a revelation during the first 20 games or so of the season, taking on tough quality of competition and deployment, and utterly dominating 5v5 production. It appeared unfathomable to break it up, to the detriment of Kassian's development.

Kassian really hasn't had a chance to play with exceptional distributors, instead being anchored by Brad Richardson since early last season.

Now that Higgins has come back down to earth with his scoring pace and Desjardins has dabbled with Burrows in a third line role, Bonino needs someone he can consistently set up who will actually finish. A line of Kassian-Bonino-Burrows, albeit with one winger playing the off-hand, would be a goddamn nightmare from a matchup perspective. They can beat you in a number of ways, have size and strength, and have skill to create. Unfortunately, Kassian has been injured during the Canucks' recent slump. They at least appear to be coming out of that slump a bit now, right as Kassian prepares to return. Tough cookies.

Kassian really hasn't had a chance to play with exceptional distributors that will involve him, like Henrik Sedin or Bonino. He has instead been tied to Brad Richardson who, despite his decent contributions this season, isn't a prototypical offensive distributor, or producer, at center. As noted above, Richardson can be an absolute anchor when it comes to play-driving. Kassian isn't yet the guy who can consistently drive play and solely carry the offense for a line, though he did do so often last season. But given his toolset, it seems like he would thrive with a center who recognizes his rush ability and give the big guy the rock in transition, where he can be a real threat entering the offensive zone. Less work to get the puck, more results when it is given to him.

Part of the problem also could be that he sometimes isn't assertive enough. When he is, he is aggressive to the point that he is a bit out of control. I don't totally see this, but other Canucks analysts and fans have noted that he appears to be looking for a balance between playing aggressively and still being under control. Let's chalk it up to being a young player finding his preferred game, while trying to fit the role provided to him. The media seem to think that because of his frame, he should be a prototypical power forward. Sound like anyone??

I happen to think that his game is made more for creative offensive pressure and rush play-driving. He just has the advantage of doing it in a 6'3" frame.

The question is, why and how do the Rangers target a guy like Zack Kassian? Despite forward depth, there are parts on this year's Rangers team that either don't make financial sense now, or will not in the very near future. In a cap-controlled world, it is always worthwhile to seek replacement pieces that are controllable and inexpensive. Being proactive in doing so makes the most of existing asset value, while gaining controlled asset value at an earlier point before unrestricted free agency.

I would absolutely move Carl Hagelin's contract, which is going to price him out of New York as an RFA and only be worse in a contract that consumes UFA years thereafter. Paying $3.5m+ for a 3rd liner is untenable. But that is probably what Hagelin will fetch if they attempt to consume UFA years. His UFA comparable would be Andrew Cogliano, who is at $3m AAV and it can be argued that Cogliano is the better and more effective depth player. Do the Rangers really want to pay Hagelin, a 26 year old projected 3rd liner (albeit a good one), $3m+ for an RFA year? Do they want to consume UFA years and have an even higher AAV? Can they even afford to, given the number of other contracts they have to consider for important players while up against the cap? The projected 2015-16 cap is $72-73m. There isn't much wiggle room.

The Canucks could certainly be in the market for a speedy player like Hagelin to inject more life into Willie Desjardins preferred systems and get them down the ice with more team speed. They can afford Hagelin right now, and can make room for an RFA signing of $3m+ next season. But obtaining him makes them a touch older and a touch more cap-constricted.

Maybe more intriguing though is the notion that the Canucks also could use a top 4 D. They have decent offensive depth, and more coming. What they truly lack is top 4 quality D and reliable depth. The loss of Dan Hamhuis has been strongly felt on the blue line, even though has had a down year by anyone's standards. He was probably #3 on the depth chart behind Alex Edler and Chris Tanev. Kevin Bieksa simply cannot carry a sub-average NHL defenseman and, for as much potential as Luca Sbisa has, he simply makes too many massive blunders to be trusted with top four minutes (think John Moore, Rangers fans). So in the short term, they need someone that can sit top four and not kill them. Long term, that player or Bieksa can fall into the third pair with one of Webber, Stanton or Sbisa and give the Canucks 3 playoff-caliber defensive pairs.

Might Marc Staal be an option? Its a thought, but one fraught with concerns for both teams. The Canucks simply may not be able to afford him without moving someone else. Staal is set for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season and will fetch a relatively hefty price, probably in the vicinity of $5-6m AAV. His skills have noticeably deteriorated, though his league-wide reputation as a shutdown defender seems to still precede him.

From the Rangers perspective, it would be untenable to lose a top four defenseman, even one that is underperforming, without having a viable replacement ready. Sure, Kevin Klein has been great this year. But the idea of having both John Moore and Matt Hunwick in the lineup every game probably would not sit well with management or Alain Vigneault. The Rangers would need to have another move in the works.

For the record, I don't think the Canucks should move Zack Kassian. But If they are going to, I'd be fine with it being for the Rangers' gain. He is going to be a star, given the right circumstances. I just don't want anyone else in the East to get their hands on him.

Especially not the Bruins.