Judging An Acceptable Return For Ryan McDonagh

The past few weeks have been something of a whirlwind for the New York Rangers. The team continues to struggle on the ice -- amassing just three regulation wins in their last 18 contents — and continues to get ravaged by injuries. Alain Vigneault continues to look confused behind the bench, while Jeff Gorton sits in his box in silence.

As the trade deadline approaches, more and more talking heads on the national level have focused in on the Rangers are one of the league’s premier sellers. With Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and even Mats Zuccarello all potentially on the block, contending teams are keeping an eye on what Jeff Gorton is doing.

Over the weekend, the folks from Sportsnet suggested the Rangers and Lightning have mutual interest in a McDonagh move, and that Tyler Johnson could be one of the pieces heading back to Broadway. The McDonagh-Tampa link seems to have far more concrete evidence to it being more than a guess. Tampa and Toronto are the only real sensible partners in the east, since the Rangers will not deal McDonagh within the division. With the east being as much of a mess as it is, both teams should feel like this is the year to stock up on talent -- and Tampa getting out ahead of that isn’t surprising.

However, the return is what’s important here. A lot of people (myself included) are using the bones of the Keith Yandle trade to try and blueprint what the Rangers might get back for their captain. This isn’t the worst strategy in the world, since if McDonagh is traded at the deadline: He would give his acquiring team two playoff runs and a full season after this spring, he’s looked at as elite defenseman who can shore up the top line, and he has a reasonable contract that can easily be slipped into the acquiring team’s cap space.

There are two key differences, though:

1) Right or wrong, McDonagh is looked at as a superior defenseman than Yandle, who has a bigger body of work for success, and a much better “reputation” as a top-pair guy. Call it the New York factor, or maybe the Rangers’ run of playoff success, but McDonagh’s looked at across the board as a more valuable piece.

2) This is the big one: The Rangers don’t have to trade McDonagh. When Yandle was traded it was well known that Arizona was looking for a way to recoup assets for a guy that they weren’t going to keep in a two years anyway. It’s not insane to think the Rangers would want to keep McDonagh — and would be able to get it done easily, as well. That turns the negotiation from “I really want to get something good” to “I need to get something good, or I’ll take my toys and go home.”

Circling back to the Johnson part of the rumor: It makes no sense. Johnson is a great player, don’t get me wrong, but at 27 he’s not the type of return the Rangers need to be getting back. Trading McDonagh for a Johnson-based package would be akin to ripping your front door off to use the wood to patch a broken window. You’re creating one hole to fill another. Johnson — who Tampa might be looking to unload thanks to their cap problems -- just doesn’t make sense for what the Rangers are trying to do.

There’s really two acceptable packages when it comes to a McDonagh return.

The first is NHL youth or AHL youth ready to make the jump. Think William Nylander or Mitch Marner in terms of the NHL youth; guys who are young, more established NHLers who can jump in right away. Keep in mind, this type of a deal takes away from the overall package, as a 20-year-old with an NHL resume is far more valuable than an 18-year-old tearing up the QMJHL. On the flip side, AHL youth who are ready to make the jump are less valuable than a guy already in the NHL, so you’d expect more in terms of a package surrounding them. (In terms of Tampa, there’s far more AHL youth who are good but perhaps not elite than anything else, so I’m not sure they’re the best trade partner anyway.)

The second would be a full-on picks and prospects type deal. As a speculative example of what I’m talking about: Could Gorton get Vegas to give up Erik Brannstrom or Nick Suzuki? Or both? Does a team like Minnesota give up a couple of first round picks as part of a package? Does Tampa do something like that?

Logically, the Rangers need to move themselves forward in one of two ways: Youth ready to jump in right now or soon, or a farm system re-boot to get the team to that place as soon as possible. Guys like Johnson don’t help the Rangers do either of those things.

In my above linked story, I wrote the following:

The type of return becomes increasingly important as the Rangers (and really Gorton) try to forecast their future. McDonagh’s return would be the critical starting point towards the goal of future contention with a revitalized (and youthful) core. The reality here is that while a McDonagh trade might look like the Rangers hitting the nuclear button and beginning a multi-year fallout, it might not actually be.

McDonagh -- if moved — would be the player the Rangers got the most out of from an acquiring team. Using his return to start the process of re-tooling would give Gorton a much better outlook at what else would be needed. Grabner and Nash will more than likely bring back draft picks, while Zuccarello would be on the next tier of return. (Right now I’m thinking of a Zuccarello trade as a “break glass in case of emergency” type move, but I can see it being a smart thing to do as well.)

In many ways it all starts with McDonagh.

Hasn’t it always these past few years?