That one could even pose the hypothetical of a Jacob Trouba trade just five months into a seven-year contract would ostensibly implicate the player in a very bad way. He was a much-hyped acquisition who was given a lengthy contract to lead the team’s defense. Clearly, nobody would even think to move on from Artemi Panarin right now.
No, Trouba hasn’t played fully up to the standard anticipated. His point total is pretty good, with 17 points in 31 games. Perhaps that doesn’t reflect the peak of his abilities, but it’s certainly within reasonable range. However, half of his production has come on the power play, he’s been a defensive liability, and he hasn’t driven possession. CSA Hockey has Trouba ranked as the fourth-worst NHL defenseman this season by expected plus/minus through November. Evolving Hockey has Trouba as below replacement level in terms of his contributions at even strength and on the penalty kill.
Though his early play certainly doesn’t itself make a case for vetoing the idea of a Trouba trade, that’s not at all the inspiration for the premise. Trouba has struggled so far, but the Rangers’ defensive scheme is lacking and being paired with Libor Hajek, who has been arguably the worst defenseman in the NHL this season, is hurting him. It’s a fair bet that Trouba will be just fine if/when the situation around him improves.
Rather, the positive performances by Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox are what have come into focus.
Tony DeAngelo’s path to the NHL has been long and incredibly rocky, but it seems that he’s finally righting the ship. He really stepped up in the second half of the 2018-2019 and has taken much of that momentum into 2019-2020. During the 2019 calendar year, DeAngelo has nine goals and 34 assists through 66 games. What’s more, he’s put up those numbers despite having his time on the top powerplay unit limited this season.
His defensive game has been lacking, though it’s improved from where it was. With the right system and a capable shutdown partner, DeAngelo’s weaknesses could be more properly dealt with. per Evolving Hockey, DeAngelo ranks 11th in even-strength offensive Goals Above Replacement since the 18-19 season. That’s a borderline elite offensive defenseman.
Adam Fox made the Rangers’ lineup out of training camp, which was expected. He was perceived to be NHL ready from the moment he was acquired. What few would have predicted is how seamlessly his transition from college hockey to the NHL has been. Fox has been the team’s best defenseman by a wide margin. His offensive prowess is no surprise, as his ability to start the Rangers’ rushes from the back has been exceptional. His capacity for finding teammate’s sticks in scoring positions is exceptional. His defensive play has been an extremely pleasant surprise. He wins so many puck races and rarely gets beat one-on-one.
Fox ranks 39th among all defensemen in the 2019-2020 season in Goals Above Replacement, according to Evolving Hockey. For all of the team’s defensive issues, Fox has been the exception.
DeAngelo and Fox are leading the way for the Rangers on defense. Given that this is a rebuilding team looking to contend for a while, one would think that two highly productive and cost-controlled defensemen aged 24 and 21 might be key parts of that long-term goal.
Where would that leave Trouba? He’s receiving fewer minutes now than he did at the start of the season, while Fox and DeAngelo have both seen icetime increases. Trouba has mostly been relegated to the second power play unit. Even when (if?) he’s back to playing his best hockey, what will he be providing in particular that the team doesn’t also get from Fox and DeAngelo?
Good problems are still problems. It’s a salary cap league, and eventually DeAngelo and Fox will need salary raises. The Rangers have numerous holes to fill as is. Spending a premium on three similar offensive defensemen is not a smart way to build a winning hockey team.
All three will be unable to coexist long-term. It’s hard to imagine it making any tactical sense. Even if the coaches did find a way to make sense of it, cap concerns will force the team’s hand regardless. Once righties Joey Keane and Nils Lundkvist come onto the scene to play a more traditional shutdown role, something will have to give.
Here’s why this is something the Rangers must seriously think about right now. On July 1st, 2020, Jacob Trouba’s full No-Trade Clause officially kicks in and remains until 2024, then turns into a partial no-trade clause for the following two seasons. In other words, the Rangers have a little over six months to decide if they want to commit an $8M cap hit to him for at least the next four seasons.
In effect, the Rangers have a little over six months to decide which two defensemen they want to ride with long-term. If one of three players who play similar roles has to leave, then is there not some sense in parting ways with the one who is the oldest, most expensive, and offers the least flexibility going forward?
Realistically, Adam Fox is going nowhere, making this debate effectively about DeAngelo versus Trouba. It’s impossible to make a definitive judgment now, particularly from afar. There are other components that President John Davidson and General Manager Jeff Gorton will have to consider. What are the trade markets for Trouba versus DeAngelo? What kind of contract does DeAngelo want when his current deal expires this summer? Is there any remaining concern about DeAngelo’s ability to take instructions from coaches? How would moving either affect the locker room?
A Trouba trade so soon after he was acquired from Winnipeg would be completely anti-climactic. However, Fox and DeAngelo are playing so well that it may justify a decision that would have been completely laughable on a few months ago.