When the NHL and Las Vegas prepared for expansion, they learned some important lessons from the past. Previous expansion drafts offered the likes of Nashville, Atlanta, and Columbus little talent from which to choose. Selling non-traditional markets on hockey was a tough job to begin with. Having to spend years just to build a competent roster only made things worse.
So the NHL has adjusted roster protection rules to make legitimate NHL talent available to Vegas. Teams with depth are going to have some tough decisions to make, and the Rangers happen to be a team with more forwards worth keeping than there are spots available. How the Rangers maneuver this problem is definitely tricky. However, the one way this should not end is with Oscar Lindberg’s departure.
At face value, Lindberg might seem like the easiest player to part with compared to Jesper Fast and Michael Grabner, the likely alternatives. Grabner was second on the team in goals, gave teams anxiety on their own power plays, and scored three non-empty net goals in 12 playoffs games. Fast continued to be a consistently solid depth winger with great defensive play and occasional offense. Arguably the 12-best games of his career came during the 2017 playoffs. Lindberg, meanwhile struggled for much of the season due to recovery from hip surgery. Though he had a strong second-half of the season and playoffs, he had zero goals and five assists through the first 26 games.
So it might be counter-intuitive that Lindberg should be the biggest priority of the three. It boils down to (extremely Darren Rovell voice)... the market.
Michael Grabner’s offensive success this was fun and exciting. However, a 16.7% shooting percentage from a player who shot 11.7% in his previous 397 NHL games is incredibly unlikely to repeat. Even with more reasonable production, he would surely still be an asset on the ice. At the end of the day, though, Grabner is a 30-year-old depth winger who is 12 months away from free agency.
Fast is good for his role on the team. Though his defensive impact is strong, he is lacking on the offensive side. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model rated Fast’s impact this season firmly as that of a good fourth liner, and tied for worst (Vesey) among NYR regulars. Having such a reliable player at the back of the lineup on a cheap contract the last three years has been a difference maker. However, those days are in the past. Fast is due for an extension this summer, and what you see now is what you get going forward. The Rangers will be forced to pay up the next few years for a fourth-line winger.
In the case of those two, they have already peaked in terms of their output relative to cost. While they would be missed, depth wingers are the most easily replaceable players. Every offseason the market is oversaturated with them and every trading deadline there are some available for mid-round picks.
Young depth centers under team control usually come at a premium. Very few young, cost-controlled centers have been traded the last few years, and the ones that were moved came at a premium; Andrew Shaw for two second-round picks, and the same for Lars Eller. Thus, unlike Fast and Grabner, Lindberg is difficult to replace. There will be few centers on the free agent market who are strong forecheckers, can score 12-18 goals, and are reliable on faceoffs; Lindberg ranked 35th in defensive zone faceoff percentage out of all NHL centers who took at least 100 d-zone faceoffs (via Puckbase.com). Any available for trade will require a sizable return.
This concern over supply has resulted in teams giving out hefty contracts to their young, depth centers. At the risk of cherrypicking, here are all long-term contract extensions I could find since 2015 for depth centers under the age of 28.
With Lindberg up for a new contract, the Rangers’ will likely benefit from the many months he looked pedestrian as he returned to strength. If, going forward, Lindberg continues to play as he did in his rookie year and in 2017, then the Rangers are in position to get strong value out of him. Ideally, a deal similar to Jarnkrok’s is on the table. If not, then the Rangers can do their favored bridge deals and get third-line performance the next couple of years from a player being paid below that standard. He may eventually be in line for a promotion should the Rangers decide that keeping all of Stepan, Zibanejad, and Hayes is not economical. If not, the team would eventually be able to trade Lindberg at much higher value than he’d generate now.
As has happened in most previous expansion drafts, teams will trade assets to Vegas in return for a promise to not select a particular player. In an optimal world, the Vegas Golden Knights take one of the Rangers’ available defensemen. If they eye Antti Raanta, then that would also avert this problem (though maybe open the door to another). However, if the Golden Knights have other ideas, then the Rangers need to arrange for Lindberg’s keeping. Fast and Grabner are both fine players, but through no fault of their own are more easily expendable. The value of a young, cost-controlled center in position to sign an affordable contract is simply too much to lose to Vegas for nothing.