With the Rangers (and their fanbase) transition fully into offseason mode, attention shifts from the despair of a lousy play-in performance, followed by the jubilation of a daft lottery win, to a more even-keeled assessment of the team’s offseason planning.
As roster changes are contemplated, it would be misleading to say that Pavel Buchnevich has been absent from the discourse. He made an appearance on TSN’s Trade Bait list for the 2020 Trading Deadline and the (presumptive) acquisition of winger Alexis Lafreniere has stimulated conversation regarding Buchnevich’s expendability. Still, he remains on the periphery relative to other, more obvious candidates for the “stay or go?” debate. He is not a free agent, like Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo, and Jesper Fast, nor is his contract obtrusive like Lundqvist’s or Brendan Smith’s.
Yet, for a multitude of reasons, Buchnevich is arguably the most intriguing player hanging in the balance for the Rangers.
Is Buchnevich Expendable? Well, It’s Complicated...
A primary motivation for trading Buchnevich would be that his spot on the depth chart is where the Rangers are best prepared to cut costs and absorb a loss with internal replacements.
At least, ostensibly.
Kaapo Kakko, Vitaly Kravtsov, and Julien Gauthier make up a trio of young right wing prospects that is unrivaled around the league. The hope for Kakko is that he becomes an all-star as expected. Kravtsov has all-star potential but could settle in as a lesser, but still very effective and valuable, top-six winger. Even Gauthier has the skillset to become a top-six winger.
The Rangers’ problem is that they cannot take their successes for granted quite yet. Kakko struggled immensely in his rookie NHL season. Kravtsov could not break the roster and had a miserable season, though he is finding his form in the KHL currently. The 22-year-old Gauthier fared well in his audition and proved NHL capable, but still has yet to get on the scoresheet often enough for the team to prepare to lean on him.
It’s a safe bet that, in the long-term, some combination of those three will thrive in New York. In that sense, the Rangers could pretty safely move on from Buchnevich without any major disruption to the goal of becoming a perennial contender in the mid-2020s.
But the Rangers are still trying to be a legitimate playoff competitor in the next couple of seasons. Certainly, entering opening night of the 2020-21 season with zero proven right wingers is a potential disaster in the making. It’s a bad situation for everyone involved if Kakko struggles on the top line. Kravtsov, whom the Rangers are prepared to leave in the KHL for the length of the season, may not even be an option for Head Coach David Quinn at all. The team would like to re-sign Jesper Fast if at all possible. That seems less likely with every passing day, and if he’s the team’s most distinguished right winger then it’s still not a great situation.
Artemiy Panarin could switch wings, though it’s not optimal to move him from a position in which he just produced the best season of his career. It also would open up new questions about left wing depth.
Big picture, the Rangers can withstand a Buchnevich departure. The million-dollar question is how soon that would come to fruition. The decision on what to do with him would be a lot easier with foresight into how the team’s young prospects will perform in the upcoming season. Without that, trading Buchnevich makes the team vulnerable to a crisis at the position in the immediate future.
The Goal is to Be a Better Team
No, this is not a team in win-at-all-costs mode or anything remotely resembling that. President John Davidson has even gone on the record saying that making the playoffs in 2020-21 is not an absolute mandate. But the organization has also progressed beyond the point in the rebuild where on-ice results are incidental. The Rangers hovered around the battle for a playoff spot into March. Artemiy Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are in their late-20s and Chris Kreider was not extended for what he’ll be doing in five years.
The Rangers’ offseason dilemma has been framed as a struggle to keep as many players as possible while still fitting under the salary cap, which is not at all the case. That would be an earnest endeavor for a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have built a contender with few weak spots. The Rangers finished 11th in the Eastern Conference. Per Evolving Hockey, the Rangers finished the regular season 30th in expected goals percentage.
They performed much better during the second half of the season and they’re on the upswing. This is not a “blow it up” situation. But keeping the group together is not a self-justifying goal. The team doesn’t get any trophies for fitting under the salary cap. The objective is to become a better team.
Trading Pavel Buchnevich, at least directly, is contradictory to that objective. He was on pace for 55 points over an 82-game season prior to the pandemic. The Russian is a capable playmaker who complements his shooting linemates in Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. He’s a major influencer of possession, creating zone exits and zone entries with efficiency and, now finally grown into his frame, has become an asset on the forecheck. While his defensive game isn’t masterful by any means, he’s finally figured out what Quinn wants from him and is no longer a defensive zone liability. Yes, the Rangers need to cut costs somewhere, but in terms of bang-for-buck, one could argue that no player on the Rangers offers more of that than Buchnevich (entry-level contracts like Fox aside).
In fact, Per Evolving Hockey, the Russian was worth 13.4 Goals Above Replacement in 2019-20, ranking him higher than every Ranger other than Panarin and Adam Fox. He ranked 24th among all NHL forwards. All without seeing significant time on the top power play unit.
Buchnevich has grown into a bonafide first-line winger in the NHL. If trading him either directly or indirectly provides General Manager Jeff Gorton with assets and cap space to make the team significantly better elsewhere with the acquisition of a difference-making center or a stalwart left defenseman, then that’s one thing. But if his sacrifice is merely to fit the team’s restricted free agents on bridge deals, then what’s really the point? Going into 2020-21 with the generally same roster save for swapping Lafreniere and Buchnevich would be underwhelming and in no way make the Rangers meaningfully better than they were last season. At least in terms of roster construction.
If Not Now, Then When?
Maybe the potential lack of immediate help at right wing, as well as the setback for next season, is cause for keeping Buchnevich this offseason and through next season. What would the plan with him after that?
Buchnevich is currently two years away from unrestricted free agency. Furthermore, he becomes a restricted free agent with arbitration rights next offseason. Assuming he continues his productive ways, he’s going to be a very expensive re-sign. There are a few ways the Rangers could address that. They could give him another short-term contract which would kick the can down the road but still come with a sizable raise. Locking him up to a long-term deal could be an option but would likely require a five-year contract pushing $6M per season.
The Rangers are already paying a premium for Artemiy Panarin and Chris Kreider, and if all goes as planned with the developments of Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, they too will require sizable contracts when their entry-level details expire. Not to mention potential futures for Kravtsov and Gauthier in the organization.
Are the Rangers going to be in a position to allocate that kind of cap space to Buchnevich in a few years? It’s possible, but based on current projections, unlikely. Given the current organizational depth chart and salary allocations, Buchnevich’s long-term future with the Rangers is in serious doubt.
Letting him walk as an unrestricted free agent in two years would be negligent, while trading him as a deadline rental would generate an underwhelming return and could be awkward if the team is looking at a playoff appearance. So if he has to be traded eventually, the Rangers might as well do it when they have the most leverage.
That time would be probably right now. Buchnevich is 25 years old, making him an option both for immediate contenders or, equally, a rebuilding team looking longer-term. He’s under team control for two more seasons and his current $3.25M cap hit for 2020-21 is a massive bargain. In an offseason where most teams are battling both salary cap concerns as well as actual payroll issues, Buchnevich would be a boon for a team looking to upgrade without breaking the bank monetarily.
Kasperi Kapanen, a lesser winger, netted the Maple Leafs the 15th-overall selection and a B-level prospect in Filip Hallander from the Penguins. The market isn’t always balanced, but if that trade is any indication, then the Rangers could get a serious haul for Buchnevich. Perhaps there is a so-called “hockey trade” to be had in which the Rangers could move him for a much-needed left defenseman or center. Or, perhaps, they simply could receive draft picks and prospects that make a separate move to address those needs possible.
If the Rangers believe Buchnevich will likely be with another team one way or another by October of 2022, then there’s a strong argument to be made that they should trade him now, when his value on the market will never be better.
Should the Rangers Trade Him?
It’s hard to make absolute claims about what the Rangers should or shouldn’t do because of a dearth of important information. What does Buchnevich want for his next contract? What are DeAngelo, Strome, and Georgiev asking for right now? What does the trade market look like and do the Rangers have anything cooking that could change the outlook of the current depth chart?
It’s a tough call for the Rangers as they try to juggle various interests, both short-term and long-term. Buchnevich may be a tough fit for the future, but the next couple of seasons are by no means write-offs. And while he may be an easier replacement than Ryan Strome or Tony DeAngelo when it comes to internal alternatives, he’s a much more difficult replacement in terms of the on-ice contributions he gives to the Rangers right now.