The expected: this summer should be filled with a slew of transactions for the New York Rangers. From their highest-ever draft selection in the coming NHL Entry Draft to free agency and trades — change is coming.
Less expected: though conventional logic suggests their woeful blue line will be addressed regardless, a recent report from Larry Brooks of the New York Post mentioned that could come via a rather sizable would-be acquisition in Winnipeg Jets defender Jacob Trouba.
”So we can start the watch on the Rangers’ interest in Winnipeg’s pending free-agent right defenseman Jacob Trouba manifesting itself in trade talks, the Jets having been KO’d in six by the Blues,” Brooks noted in his column.
Trouba, 25, is coming off the best offensive season of his young career; he scored eight goals and registered 50 points in a full 82-game season for Winnipeg. He was also second among all Jets defenders in average time on ice per game (TOI/G) this season (22:53), trailing only Dustin Byfuglien (24:22) — averages that held true through the Jets’ opening round playoff contest with St. Louis.
According to Corsica, Trouba was also third in even strength Corsi among Winnipeg blue liners this season (49.98 percent), fourth in relative Corsi for (1.66), third in expected goals for percentage (48.67), and fourth in relative expected goals for (1.46).
So, why would the Jets be willing to part with him?
Well, Trouba and Winnipeg haven’t exactly had a stellar relationship since the team drafted him ninth overall in 2012. But given their pending cap crunch, the answer lies mostly in the numbers.
Trouba will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent (RFA) this summer. A handful of his teammates — Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor most notably — will also be RFAs, albeit without the same ability to file for or be taken to arbitration (but will undoubtedly earn new deals worth many times over their current entry-level averages). And this doesn’t yet account for Blake Wheeler’s five-year extension worth $8.25 million per season that will begin next year, or the potential futures of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents (UFA) Tyler Myers and Kevin Hayes.
Based on a projected $83 million cap for 2019-20, the Jets will have roughly $27.5 million to make it work, which will not give them much breathing room, if any. Especially not if the team makes a serious push to lock up both Connor and Laine to long-term deals. Certainly not if similar extensions can be agreed to with their key UFAs or any other desired additions.
Asked Trouba if he plays a role in helping the Jets stay under the salary cap this upcoming season, he responds, “that’s Chevy’s job.”— Sean Reynolds (@snseanreynolds) April 22, 2019
So essentially, a hometown discount is not likely.
Suffice it to say, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Trouba is instead moved in a trade, rather than acquiesced to. Especially if, again according to Brooks, his camp should seek $7 million per season on a new extension. That’s a number the Jets probably fear, but New York, apparently won’t.
”The Rangers will be among those wanting to give it to him,” Brooks went on to say.
It’s not all that difficult to see why New York would want Trouba. His presence would dramatically improve the right side of the Rangers’ blue line. A projected top pairing of Brady Skjei and Jacob Trouba next season would also have an aggregate effect on the rest of the Blueshirts’ defense, shifting others down the pecking order into more appropriate roles. A player like Neal Pionk, who led right-handed defensemen in average ice time, would likely see his minutes rather dramatically reduced.
Trouba would also be highly representative of New York taking a major step forward in their rebuild, propelling matters that already stand to quicken with their pending second overall draft pick, not to mention their expected presence in UFA waters this July.
But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. It’s fair to question if he’s a viable number one defender. Based on goals above replacement over the last few seasons, it’s a close call.
If Trouba’s projected new contract doesn’t give you any pause, then the price to acquire him in the first place might. With a year of RFA eligibility before he can control his own destiny, the Jets are still in the driver’s seat, and young right-handed defensemen are a hot commodity. They don’t appear to be facing any Rangers-or-bust-like conditions that have sent similar star-type talents to Broadway in years past.
No, rather, having failed to capitalize on the entry-level windows of Connor and Laine in a season in which many projected Winnipeg to come out of the Western Conference, the Jets can’t afford to lose here, even if they don’t necessarily “win” the trade.
Would the Jets really accept a one-for-one of Trouba for Kreider? The latter has one year left on his own deal before free agency in the summer of 2020, giving Winnipeg an awfully short window to work with. Though at $4.65 million against the cap, the salary is workable... for now.
Or, instead, would Winnipeg be more interested in a cache of younger assets with which they can work a longer window of contention with? Assets that the Rangers, smack dab in the middle of a rebuild, are in no position to be parting with just yet?
Kreider’s addition to the Jets’ roster would presumably allow Winnipeg to bump Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored 21 goals and registered 37 points in 62 games this season, to their third line where more favorable matchups could unleash quality depth scoring results. But again, with just one year left on his deal, what’s to say they won’t be left in a similar position next summer? Winning cures all, but a repeat performance like this season’s, or even one in which they simply fall short could ultimately be judged as poor asset management.
And we’ve yet to even broach the bad taste that’s probably left in Kevin Cheveldayoff’s mouth after giving up Brendan Lemieux and what could be as high as the 18th overall selection this summer for Kevin Hayes, who registered two goals and an assist in six games for the Jets this postseason, but who also averaged just 11:59 TOI/G in the series. He may not exactly jump at the opportunity to take on another Ranger so soon.
The cost of acquisition isn’t the only complicating factor for New York, either. Closing out his thoughts on Trouba and the Rangers, Brooks noted that he believed a right side group of Trouba, Adam Fox (the worst kept secret in hockey), Tony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk would “suite the Rangers just fine.”
Conspicuously missing from that group? 30-year-old Kevin Shattenkirk. Should the Rangers land Trouba, as well as the seemingly destined-for Fox, it’s understandable why that might be the case.
Though Trouba’s deal would eclipse the average of Shattenkirk’s rare hometown discount, he’d be coming in five years younger, and with none of the injury concerns. Fox, meanwhile, projects much in the vein of a younger Shattenkirk, renowned for his commanding presence as a power play driver.
But Shattenkirk can’t just disappear. He’d need to be traded, which would require finding a partner who not only values him, but would be willing to take on the final two years of his deal. Ten of those would-be teams could also be nixed on principle given the conditions of number 22’s trade clause protection, agreed to in good faith, likely in exchange for such a team-friendly annual average value.
As I wrote about back in December, Shattenkirk has experienced everything go wrong that could go wrong since signing with New York.
From extended losing streaks, to a rebuild announced in the first year of his deal, to mounting injuries, and more. He ultimately reclaimed the power play position he lost to Neal Pionk at the time, but it’s difficult to envision he, rather than a would-be tag team of Trouba and Fox, as part of a more viable big picture solution.
Trouba would undoubtedly improve, if not accelerate, the Rangers rebuild. But unlike the gimme they’re about to get with the second overall selection this June, he could prove a costly affair.
The Rangers are right to inquire, but are under no obligation to make this work, as they won’t be without alternatives to ponder about should the Jets’ ask be unreasonably high. A certain Swedish defender — himself set to hit free agency this summer — and international teammate of Henrik Lundqvist’s comes to mind, for one.
A summer of change, indeed. But for now, we ponder. As do the Rangers.