The NHL season largely navigates around a handful of key dates — most notably the trading deadline — each of which affect the likelihood of teams completing a trade. But irrespective of important factors such as salary proration, how close a club is to its 50-contract ceiling, and cap room, for general managers, the right moment to make a trade is the moment someone makes you an offer you like.
As my colleague, Joe Fortunato recently wrote, that moment can come at any time for the New York Rangers, since things can’t get much worse than they already are. That’s why it’s pertinent for the Rangers to be aggressive ahead of the deadline — a mere 40-odd days away from now — by setting the market, rather than reacting to it.
During the ‘Headlines’ segment on Sportsnet’s Hockey Night in Canada this past Saturday, Elliotte Friedman noted that the market could very well tip in favor of buying teams given the sheer volume of clubs prepared to sell.
”I think there’s a lot of teams that have said they’re sellers and I think they’re worried that unless they have a real difference-maker they’re going to get stuck, because the buyers have the advantage in this market, and that’s rare,” Friedman noted, following Nick Kypreos’ updated reports regarding Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Michael Ferland, both of whom have also entered an ever-growing trading mill.
The Rangers were likely always prepared to sell heading into this season, but they couldn’t possibly have accounted for the growing collection of sellers this season has produced. Especially not those in their own division like the surprisingly poor Philadelphia Flyers.
Though it’s not entirely clear just how far the Rangers are willing to cut into their roster for what will be their second-straight liquidation sale, names like Mats Zuccarello, Adam McQuaid, and potentially Kevin Hayes — all unrestricted free agents (UFA) this summer — are the most logical candidates to sell. The returns for each, however, could be affected, perhaps drastically, if the Rangers ride this train to the bitter end.
If, for example, the New Jersey Devils and Flyers — both of whom currently sit behind the Rangers in the standings — decide to sell, it’s entirely plausible that the Rangers’ leverage in trying to make Zuccarello a hot commodity could be mitigated by the presence of, say, Marcus Johansson and Wayne Simmonds on the same market.
If you’re a club looking to bolster your scoring depth for a long run at glory, why would you feel particularly pressured to give up a premium for Zuccarello when you can potentially give up less for one of his peers? Or, even in the event the price remains the same regardless, what sense of urgency is there in meeting the Rangers’ asking price if you know you have options beyond their players?
This hasn’t yet accounted for Atlantic division clubs like the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators, either, who could also sell pending UFA scoring wingers of their own in Gustav Nyquist and Mark Stone.
Likewise, though Kevin Hayes is certainly one of the premiere centers potentially available on the market, the presence of Matt Duchene detracts from his maximal value for every day Duchene is still available.
McQuaid, interestingly enough, might be one of the few players least affected by the state of the market where he could enter it one of the better and more highly-coveted right-handed defenders. Though far from perfect, he does play the kind of hard-nosed physical game that lends itself well to the normally ultra-physical opening round of the playoffs. Not to mention the market on righty defenders is already bleak, and will only get bleaker if Alex Edler ends up re-signing with the Vancouver Canucks.
With peers like Ben Lovejoy and Andrej Sustr to contend with, it’s not so inconceivable that the Rangers actually get the higher-than-they-paid-for-him return on McQuaid so many fans are waiting with bated breath on.
McQuaid perhaps aside, none of this is to say that fans ought to expect paltry returns for whoever the Rangers do end up trading away, but lowering expectations ahead of a buyer’s market trading deadline might be a necessary first step in sidestepping disappointment. Particularly on Zuccarello, who’s mediocre season thus far hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in the Blueshirts’ ability to get top dollar for him.
Still, despite a less than desirable market for sellers, the Rangers remain in control of their own destiny. The only thing they need to do to make sure this doesn’t slip from their grip is to act before their competitors do. This requires that general manager Jeff Gorton not hold the line too long on any given deal if he’s made attractive offers for his players. This doesn’t mean he has to agree to the first offer made, but it does mean he should agree to the first (or second) serious one made.
Much like the Michael Grabner trade — pulled off three days prior to last season’s deadline — that saw the Rangers trade their then-leading scorer to one of their biggest divisional rivals, Gorton must be willing to accept a good deal when it’s offered to him, regardless of destination. The difference between this and being left out in the cold is, unfortunately, thinner than they’ve probably hoped it would be.
If that means entertaining the idea of Mats Zuccarello as a Pittsburgh Penguin, or Kevin Hayes as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, so be it. As beggars can’t be choosers, neither can sellers be. Not in a buyer’s market.
The Rangers’ goals haven’t changed, even if some of the terrain in getting there has shifted. The club is rebuilding and appear to be all in, no matter the short-term pain. Likewise, their strategy ahead of the looming trade deadline should be no different. All of this is means to an end. The pain, sensory as it may seem at the moment, is an illusion.
But the wave of talent promising to flood this market isn’t, and should serve as the proper motivation for Gorton to not waste time. First come, first served is a fine mantra for traversing these 40-odd days. For if it’s adhered to, there’s little reason to suspect they might be left holding the bag or regretting the take it or leave it offers of teams who wait them into a corner.