There have been two genuinely surprising things to happen so far this year for the New York Rangers.
The first: Nick Holden’s shocking explosion of offense, which has helped steady the ship at times with the injuries to some of the Rangers better-preforming forwards.
The second: Michael Grabner.
We heard the stories when he was first signed: Scored 34 goals one year. Was a 20-goal scorer another. Had 16 goals in 45 games another year.
We also heard: can’t score on a breakaway. Fast but no finish. Depth.
There was a time, believe it or not, where there was a discussion about whether or not Grabner would even make the team. And trust me when I tell you, that line of thinking was actually defensible. From that story (back in October):
In terms of play on the ice, both bring similar defensive skills but Grabner adds far more offense and a little more speed. Gerbe — for as good as he’s been — just hasn’t outplayed Grabner enough to earn the spot in my eyes.
Also, Grabner is on a two-year deal to Gerbe’s one-year deal. That’s important because Grabner can be exposed in the expansion draft next summer, meaning the Rangers can expose him without concern they’re losing a core member. In the end I think that plays just as big of a role in the decision making — because the two have been close.
Did you see that?? I actually used the fact that Grabner is expansion draft fodder as part of the reason why he’d make the team. And at the time it wasn’t crazy!
That was then. Now? Well, Grabner was just awarded Adam Clendening’s second goal (I guess it went off his skate) in the win over Columbus, giving him his second hat trick of the year and a 19th goal. That gives him more goals than Alexander Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, Evgeny Malkin, Conor McDavid, Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel (just to name a few).
His explosion of offense hasn’t just been needed, it’s been, well, astonishing. At this pace Grabner is going to score around 35 goals this year (at one point he was on a 50-goal pace, so ...) and most every one of them will be at even strength. He’s hot. Red hot, actually, to the tune of a 22.1 shooting percentage, nearly a full 10% higher than his career average.
Which brings me to my point: The Rangers should trade Grabner.
Yeah, I get it. This is a somewhat outlandish idea, but hear me out for a minute.
For the past three years the Rangers have gone all in, to the tune of decimating their farm system to the point where Brady Skjei (who is now in the NHL) was the team’s last first round pick. Yes, the Rangers have mitigated these damages with the likes of Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich (throw the Mika Zibanejad trade in here too) but the team needs to re-stock.
Grabner poses a perfect opportunity to do so. A player shooting way above his career percentages? Check. A guy who will probably cool off this year? Check. A guy who is playing so well his trade value will never be higher? Check.
Teams pay through the nose for guys like Grabner at the trade deadline. And with expansion looming, it’s looking like a hotly contested race between Grabner and Antti Raanta on who will be taken. There’s a chance guys like Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast (who I’m assuming the Rangers won’t be able to protect) will go, but Grabner and Raanta have a risk factor associated with them the others don’t.
The fear, of course, is losing Grabner for nothing this summer. Signed for this exact reason, the Rangers brilliance of signing him had “expansion draft fodder” fingerprints all over it. Now that’s a major concern.
The Rangers can’t afford to lose him for nothing. Not when he’s doing what he’s doing. I penned a column about how the Rangers should be “observant sellers” at the deadline. That column was met with a lot of (logically placed) criticism about how the Rangers might not be buyers at the deadline but they can’t see Jeff Gorton being a seller. Furthermore, the Rangers could be considered contenders right now, so why ruin that?
My answer: The Rangers health allows this to happen.
When Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and Rick Nash all return healthy the Rangers are going to be sitting two quality forwards every night. Yes, losing Grabner would be a tough pill to swallow, but think about what might come back.
On the podcast last week (Episode 30) Mike brought up an incredible point. As we debated what the lines would look like (listener submitted question, no less) I went with a lineup of skill. Mike then brought up that if the defense is such an issue, wouldn’t it behoove the Rangers to run a fourth line of quality defensive players to counteract that. And he’s right.
Right now, Grabner’s not that guy, and it’s totally his fault. Only, it’s a good thing. Grabner’s scoring -- especially in this wake of injuries — has almost necessitated him to be a top-nine, if not top-six, mainstay. That will end once the trio above gets back healthy, but still.
It creates a perfect storm for Grabner to get traded — and to recoup serious assets at the height of his trade value. Here’s what my lines would look like without him:
Chris Kreider - Zibanejad - Buchnevich
Nash - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello
J.T. Miller - Kevin Hayes - Jimmy Vesey
Jeser Fast - Oscar Lindberg - Brandon Pirri/Matt Puempel/Marek Hrivik
Even in this scenario the Rangers have too many quality forwards for the fourth line duty.
Assume at the trade deadline the Rangers can pry a 1st or 2nd round pick and a mid-to-high level prospect. Why wouldn’t you do that deal? Or, maybe leading up to the deadline the Rangers can pry younger defensive help from a team trying to churn themselves into a contender before the deadline. Grabner isn’t a traditional rental, since he has another year at a very manageable cap hit after this one, and his scoring should have most general managers salivating.
It should also have Gorton salivating. The Rangers have a player who can potentially be one of the top players on the trade market, and they got him for nothing. There’s no pressure to trade him aside from the pressure good general manager’s should feel when they have an opportunity.
Losing Grabner would hurt a lot right now, but with Nash, Zibanejad and Buchnevich back there’s an opportunity to do this to ease the pain. It also creates a chance to get the Rangers some seeds for the farm -- something they desperately need.
It’s an opportunity for the Rangers to get serious value for a player at the height of his trade value. They’re accustomed to being on the other end of that.
They should change that with Grabner.