In case you didn’t know; the NHL Trade Deadline is this coming Monday, February 24th. There are a lot of rumors flying around and a whole lot of fantasy GM-ing being done across social media, especially in the New York sphere of influence since the Rangers are sitting on the biggest piece on the rental market in Chris Kreider. With the way the market is shaping up it looks like the Rangers can get quite the return for the big American forward, not to mention the lesser rentals the Rangers have on the roster, so this next week could see the Blueshirts really restocking the cupboards in terms of both prospects and draft picks.
The Rangers are smack dab in the middle of their rebuild; they have a few young NHLers to build around in Adam Fox, Filip Chytil, Igor Shesterkin, and Kaapo Kakko. Vitali Kravtsov is developing up in Hartford, and now’s the time that the Rangers need to start targeting certain players and positions when it comes to negotiating trades. No team or prospect system is perfect and all teams have their strengths and weaknesses and now, we’re gonna look at areas that the Rangers could view as strengths, and can deal from, and areas that the Rangers should address and shore up between now and the draft.
If there’s one area the Rangers won’t have to worry about anytime soon, it’s in goal. Henrik Lundqvist has held down the blue paint for over a decade now and looks ready to cede the throne to the 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin. Between them is the 24-year-old Bulgarian Alexandar Georgiev, who has established himself as a solid NHL goaltender which has led to some murkiness this season as all three try to share one net. Behind the three-headed goalie monster on Broadway, the Rangers have Adam Huska taking over the lion’s share of the starts for the Wolf Pack currently putting up a .892 save percentage as a 22-year-old while Tyler Wall — such a great goalie name, by the way — is backstopping UMass-Lowell to the tune of a .930 save percentage.
Goaltending is notoriously volatile and this abundance of riches for the Rangers could go belly-up but right now, the Rangers’ goalie pipeline is pretty stocked up which should help the Rangers’ decision making when it comes to adding Georgiev to the trade market. He’s currently the best goaltender available and if the Rangers need a backup in a year or so, either Wall or Huska should be ready to step in and provide some rest for Shesterkin who will probably grab the starter’s net for good by the end of this season. There’s also Olof Lindbom — a surprise pick, but one that Benoit Allaire is enamored with — which just speaks to the tremendous depth the Rangers have accumulated in recent years.
For all the years that the Rangers defense was — and let’s be honest still kind of is — a sizable weakness, the front office have done a very, very good job at addressing it through recent drafts and trades. On Broadway, the Blueshirts are a...mixed bag. Marc Staal is, somehow, still on the blue line skating regular shifts in 2020 but his icetime has dropped over the last couple of months, Brady Skjei and Jacob Trouba have been up and down throughout the season but have had stretches of strong play, and then you have the three young blueliners in Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo, and Ryan Lindgren. Adam Fox has been a revelation this season, and easily the best defenseman on the team, DeAngelo has put up a ton of points thus far and has played better in his own zone of late, and Lindgren is quickly becoming a fan favorite as he’s recently decided to use his face to stop pucks, sticks, and all kinds of hockey paraphernalia.
Also, Brendan Smith is there...until he’s not? It’s weird. The Rangers also have a very strong group of defensemen waiting in the wings; Nils Lundkvist is tearing up the SHL to nearly historic proportions, K’Andre Miller is refining his prodigious skills in Wisconsin, Zac Jones recently put his name on the map for Team USA during the World Junior Championships and is kicking away at UMass-Amherst, and Matthew Robertson keeps climbing the prospect rankings in the OHL.
It’s this strength that should allow the Rangers to really get daring as we head towards the deadline. Tony DeAngelo has an expiring contract, Nils Lundkvist is nipping at his heels, and if the right team, with the right package comes along, the Rangers should definitely consider moving the right-handed defender. In fact, the Rangers just made a trade dealing from this position of strength to address a position of weakness by trading Joey Keane to Carolina for forward Julien Gauthier.
The Rangers at forward are...weird. Up front they have one of the best wingers in the world in Artemiy Panarin putting up numbers that no Ranger has in decades, he’s flanked by Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast, both of whom are free agents and prime trade bait. Mika Zibanejad continues to solidify his place as the team’s top center as he pivots between Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Then you have the two future cornerstones of the offense in Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko skating with Phil DiGiuseppe. It’s a weird mish-mash of short term talent and there isn’t much to resupply and fill voids.
Kakko, Chytil, Zibanejad, and Panarin are the bona fide future of the Rangers’ attack, Pavel Buchnevich should be included here but for some reason he might be made available. In terms of prospects; the Blueshirts have Russian winger Vitali Kravtsov getting ready up in Hartford after a bit of a stop and start beginning to the season, and then...not a whole hell of a lot?
Sure, guys like Morgan Barron and Lauri Pajuniemi are interesting names, but they are a long ways away from making any real impact on the big club. If there’s any real weakness to the Rangers’ system it is up front, especially down the middle. Right now the top spot is held by Zibanejad, Strome is sitting in the No. 2 spot, with Chytil taking third line duties. It’s quite possible Chytil is ready to be the permanent 2C next season, and potentially take Zibanejad’s job a few years down the line. But after that there’s no major reinforcements on the immediate horizon, and that’s something that needs to change. The Rangers went for skill when they drafted Karl Henriksson No. 59 overall in last year’s draft, someone that’s a few years away, and going forward these are the types of moves that need to be made, ideally with first round picks.
Zibanejad will turn 27 in April, and will be 29 at the end of his current contract. Right now the organization is weighing whether or not to keep Kreider, and who’s to say they won’t have similar conversations about Zibanejad? I’d say the odds of Zibanejad sticking around past his current deal are good, but the Rangers need to stockpile centers through the draft just like they’ve done on defense.
Speaking on forwards specifically, the Rangers took one step to address their weakness by bringing in Gauthier from the Hurricanes, and as they move closer to the February 24th deadline, they should be looking to make more deals like that to bolster their forward ranks. They’re going to have to since a lot of the Rangers’ best tradeable assets (Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, and Ryan Strome) are all wingers or centers and the Blueshirts can use those assets to rearm their attack around Panarin, Chytil, and Kakko.
As the Rangers move forward in their rebuild, they will need to make upgrades to their existing roster in order to become a legitimate contender. Over the next six to 12 months, the front office should be looking at the organization and putting players in long term roles such as No. 1 center, left wing, defenseman, goaltender etc. Once they plot out the chart, it will be more evident what they are lacking, and they can go out and acquire what they need by dealing from areas of surplus. How Jeff Gorton approaches this deadline and the period before the draft should give insight on how close he feels the team is to contending. It will be fascinating to watch the organization once they start adding more pieces, and rounding out a roster with the potential to do postseason damage.