If you’re looking for a poster boy for “fast, physical, relentless” — the training camp mantra issued forth by David Quinn that’s come to define his first-year roster — look no further than Chris Kreider.
Thanks to a monstrous three-point performance against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night, the 27-year-old is on pace for a 40-goal season – outpacing his career-high 28-goal campaign in 2016-17 by a wide margin.
For Kreider, it was also one hell of a statement coming fresh off the heels of a same-day column from Larry Brooks of the New York Post (and now Hockey Hall of Fame) that, in no uncertain terms, strongly suggested Kreider co-headline a blockbuster trade with Toronto in exchange for William Nylander.
Much of Brooks’ column directly addressed fellow would-be trade headliner Brady Skjei — himself a healthy scratch against the Cats — whose future on Broadway was directly questioned. Skjei’s disappointing first quarter since signing a six-year extension over the summer as well as the strength of the Blueshirts’ lefty defensive pipeline appear to have given some runway for the Rangers’ front-office to consider high-profile change.
There’s merit to the discussion of whether Skjei deserved the contract he signed, and the idea that he could be used to land a bigger fish isn’t beyond reproach. But Kreider, referred to by Brooks as a “core player who has become an essential part of the foundation,” is almost certainly a bridge too far.
In fact, even with another year left on his contract that pays him a very manageable $4.625 million against the cap, these new-look Rangers would be far better served by keeping Kreider. Few players have embraced David Quinn’s philosophical mantra as well as Kreider has, and even fewer to the same practical effect.
Kreider’s game has also advanced off the ice, where he was officially named to the Rangers’ leadership group this season. Assuming an extension to remain a Ranger can be negotiated, would anyone be surprised to learn his name was on the short-list of candidates to be named team captain at some point this season or next?
Of course, at the age of 27, there’s inherent risk in keeping a forward who is currently playing at his peak; especially one who may not have the same statistical impact over the life of his new deal. But Kreider has shown remarkable chemistry playing alongside Mika Zibanejad – the only Rangers’ forward signed beyond the 2021-22 season. This particular fact makes the idea of keeping the dynamic duo together to lead the veteran charge on this rebuild especially promising.
In fact, since Zibanejad joined the team in 2016-17, he and Kreider are two of only four Rangers’ skaters to have registered 100 or more points in that span. Kreider’s 55 goals also lead the team over that same period.
Both men have also seen their points per game played (P/GP) rates improve thanks to the other’s presence. Each has an NHL career P/GP average of 0.59, but since 2016-17, Kreider has improved to 0.75 P/GP while Zibanejad has increased his own output to 0.72 P/GP. Surely this can’t be chalked up to coincidence given the wealth of time the two have spent playing together over that span.
According to naturalstattrick.com, from 2016-2019, the two have played alongside one another for more than 865 minutes, boasting positive shot metrics across numerous categories beside one another – numbers that suffered over the same span when not playing on the same line.
While the individual production for Kreider is clearly there today, the key for Jeff Gorton in entertaining the idea of locking him up is going to hinge entirely on term. Especially if Kreider finishes this current season with anything close to 40 goals. Given all we know of NHL scoring rates with regard to the aging curve, it’s simply critical Gorton not give a player approaching the wrong side of 30 too many years (or too much trade protection). Doing so would tread dangerously on the risk of handcuffing himself to a potential future cap anchor.
From Milan Lucic with Edmonton to David Backes with Boston to Ryan Kesler with Anaheim and more – there’s simply no shortage of regret to be found among aging physical forwards who are signed to long-term deals in free agency.
Depending on how amenable Kreider is to a shorter-term extension, Gorton may be facing an uphill battle. But if he can convince Kreider to take fewer years in exchange for a more favorable annual average value (AAV), he’ll have effectively side-stepped the most dangerous aspect of locking up his team’s most productive goal scorer by mitigating the biggest risk — years.
It’s not as though there’s a lack of precedent for players doing this in recent seasons, either. Just this past summer, the Philadelphia Flyers were able to sign James van Riemsdyk, 29, to a five-year ticket with a $7 million AAV and the Calgary Flames agreed to the same term length with 31-year-old James Neal, who’s AAV came in at $5.75 million.
Kreider’s would-be extension wouldn’t kick in until the age of 29, so limiting his term to five years or fewer should be an absolute requirement on any extension talks. The idea of locking him in at say $7 million per season and expecting top-line production out of him at 33- or 34-years old isn’t realistic, but on a four- or five-year ticket, the risk can be mitigated to near-zero with only the final season or two of his deal to worry over. Tack on a sixth, seventh, or eighth year and we’re well off the beaten path of realistic expectations.
Accounting for age, contract status, and depending on how much work you believe is still ahead of this Rangers’ rebuild, there may be more evidence to favor trading Kreider rather than keeping him around for the long-term. But juxtaposed with the fact that the Blueshirts have locked up Zibanejad, the argument for keeping Kreider improves significantly given the ability of each to bring the best out in one another.
The Rangers rightfully hitched their wagon to Zibanejad, who has thus far made right by their investment. But he’s done much of that work in conjunction with Kreider – arguably even because or him. So, rather than trade the latter for a young and promising hopeful in Nylander — enticing though that may be — keeping Kreider around for the full breadth of the rebuild wouldn’t just be a case of one hand continuing to wash the other; it would arm New York with a formidable scoring duo they can count on for years to come. Years in which they are angling to be a reliable force in the East.
Making sure the organization can make right by that goal might just hinge on the decision to keep Kreider around for the foreseeable future. A future undoubtedly made brighter as long as he and Zibanejad can continue to count on their better half; all while the Rangers continue to count on them both.