When the Rangers announced their intentions to dismantle their old core and begin again, it came with the promise of an infusion of speed and youth into the team’s lineup in the future. Once the trade deadline had come and gone, Jeff Gorton made four separate deals that sent away five roster players for a grand total of eleven future assets. Two first round selections in the 2018 Entry Draft, four additional picks, and five prospects to restock New York’s system were the major pieces received to jumpstart the rebuild.
In addition to those eleven future assets, Jeff Gorton also acquired three NHL veterans as part of the return in his two biggest deals. Vladislav Namestnikov came over from Tampa Bay as something of an equalizer between New York’s desire for Libor Hajek, and the Lightning’s demand of J.T. Miller in any trade involving Hajek. Matt Beleskey was acquired as a salary dump from the Boston Bruins to allow Rick Nash to fit under Boston’s salary cap, and will likely spend the balance of his contract in AHL Hartford. The third veteran to arrive on Broadway, also via Boston, was Ryan Spooner.
Spooner had been a polarizing player from his early days with the Bruins. The former second round pick spent his first three professional seasons shuttling between Boston and AHL Providence, logging 142 games with the Baby Bruins to go along with 56 games in the big leagues from 2012-2015. Spooner dominated the AHL during that time frame by scoring 129 points for Providence, and broke into the NHL for good at the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
Since then, Spooner has been something of a conundrum. He produced 1.86 points/60 at even strength from 2015-2018, outproducing the likes Jack Eichel, Jonathan Toews, and Corey Perry just to name a few. Even in spite of his point production, the Bruins were never confident enough to make him a part of their long-term core. A two year bridge contract that Spooner produced 88 points over the length of led to a one year pact hours before the two parties were set for arbitration in the summer of 2017. The narrative around him appeared to change last season as he tried to cement his spot in Boston’s future, but that didn’t stop the Bruins from including him as a throw-in in the Rick Nash deal.
Spooner’s deficiencies are something I’ve gone in depth on in the past, so I’ll give the short version of them here rather than re-hash them: Spooner is statistically one of the most detrimental players to a team’s shot and scoring chance numbers, and has been since breaking into the league on a full-time basis. Out of 300+ skaters that took the ice for 1500+ over the last three seasons, Spooner’s relative expected goals rating was the second worst among players who haven’t washed out of the league since then. (The worst is Patrik Laine, but being the best pure shooter in the league allows for leeway in other areas of the ice)
On a stacked Bruins team with forward depth out the wazoo, it wasn’t surprising for the Bruins to see Spooner as expendable. Once he arrived on Broadway, Spooner spent the final 20 games of last season doing the same things he’d previously done: Sink his team in the shot and chance battle while finding ways to outscore the opposing team in spite of that. 16 points in 20 games is good production, but given the last two and a half seasons Spooner skated in Boston, 20 games is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
As a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and the ability to force himself to free agency via a one year arbitration award, Jeff Gorton opted against playing hardball with his recent acquisition, signing him to the same two year, $8 million contract fellow RFA Vlad Namestnikov received. Given New York’s stated desire to infuse younger players into the lineup, the contract didn’t make sense the moment the ink dried, and the Rangers are paying for it early on in the 2018-19 campaign.
Lias Andersson spent the first month of the season in Hartford, and recorded 12 points in 14 games before injuries to Brett Howden, Mats Zuccarello, and Pavel Buchnevich created a lineup spot for him. Michael Lindqvist, who the Rangers signed six months ago out of the SHL, had his contract terminated yesterday and will be returning to Europe. Ville Meskanen, another unknown NHL quantity singed out of Europe, continues to ply his trade in Hartford. There are other players on the Rangers roster that don’t quite belong, but Spooner’s contract and horrid play make him stand out the most.
His shot metrics are among the dregs of the team, ranking last among forwards in relative Corsi For% and relative Fenwick For%, while trailing all forwards sans Cody McLeod and relative Shots on Goal For% and relative Expected Goals For%. That’s all to be expected from Spooner, but even his scoring, previously his one redeeming quality, has bottomed out.
Spooner’s 1-1-2 line through 16 games is the worst of any Ranger who’s recorded at least one point this season (which is all of them aside from McLeod and Vinni Lettieri). His rate stats aren’t much better, as adjusting for ice time moves him past Filip Chytil at 5 on 5, but Chytil out produce him as well if you want to lump in the power play time that they both receive.
Spooner has been the team’s worst forward to skate a regular shift this season, and this situation was entirely predictable and avoidable. Moving from a team stacked with high-end forwards to one with a dearth of them, his scoring drying up wasn’t a far fetched outcome. Given the Rangers’ current circumstances, keeping passengers in the lineup is detrimental to everything the organization is supposed to be focusing on right now.
If you saddle Mika Zibanejad or Chris Kreider with Spooner, it takes away valuable ice time from players like Andersson, Chytil, and Brett Howden which is *allegedly* New York’s top priority since last year’s fire sale. If you stick Spooner with one the aforementioned younger players, it puts them in a position to fail and muddies the waters when the time comes to evaluate what worked well and what didn’t. Burying Spooner on the 4th line and giving him minimal ice time with McLeod and Lettieri turns the Rangers into a three line team, as well as comes as close to lighting $4 million on fire as you can get in the NHL.
There’s no winning here, just bad, worse, and worst. All of this was known in July when the Rangers signed him to a multi-year deal. There wasn’t any logic to it then, and there isn’t any four months later. Ryan Spooner isn’t better than any of the team’s twelve best skaters, and certainly shouldn’t be taking minutes away from younger players.
He isn’t some outstanding veteran presence that rebuilding teams “need” on their roster. He isn’t expansion bait for a Seattle franchise that won’t be holding their expansion draft until Spooner’s contract has run its course in the 2020 offseason. His current on-ice play isn’t worth a draft pick to any of the other 30 NHL teams, and giving him undeserved ice time to inflate his stats isn’t worth cutting into the development of New York’s young skaters.
After the trade deadline last season, while the Rangers kept Chytil and Andersson in Hartford to conserve the first year of their ELC’s, they needed roster filler to go through the motions. Ryan Sproul, Rob O’Gara and Steven Kampfer were filler on the back end, and they currently find themselves dotted around the American Hockey League. Paul Carey, Cristoval Nieves, and Peter Holland were filler in the forward corps, and they’ve combined for 0 NHL games this season as well.
Ryan Spooner is filler, and he served his purpose last season. He’s above the level of the Rob O’Gara’s and Peter Holland’s of professional hockey, but that’s not a high bar to clear. Why Jeff Gorton elected to resign him was a mystery when it happened. With Spooner doing the same things he’d spent the past three seasons doing, only without being surrounded by elite forwards to mask his deficiencies, it’s an even greater mystery today.