Language can be funny in how one small word can sometimes reveal a whole lot. Talking to the media at the opening of training camp, Rangers President John Davidson asserted, “There’s no question (the playoffs are) a goal.”
A goal, but not the goal. While the Rangers are in no way tanking and certainly have enough talent to possibly challenge for a playoff spot, the organization’s decisions in the offseason — making no roster additions beyond the periphery and only signing players to short-term contracts — reflect that of a team whose top priority was to keep its powder dry and build an arsenal of assets and cap space for a big strike in the future.
The most prominent potential target is Jack Eichel. The prevailing belief is, should the American’s sixth season in Buffalo end with the team yet again missing the playoffs, then he and his agent will ensure it is his last.
Another center has somewhat surprisingly emerged as someone who could force a trade away from the team that drafted him. Despite signing a two-year contract on December 31st, Pierre-Luc Dubois reportedly wants out of Columbus.
His specific gripes are not public record, but The Athletic's Aaron Portzline reports that the relationship between player and team fell apart during the autumn as negotiations stalled and as Dubois, a restricted free agent, was able to speak to other organizations. Furthermore, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that Dubois “wants a bigger stage” and that this desire preceded contract negotiations.
For a number of reasons, the Rangers are about as obvious of a potential landing spot for Dubois as any team. Mika Zibanejad is 27 and becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2022. Ryan Strome is assumed to be a stop-gap for the next two seasons at most. Filip Chytil is a good young player with a legitimate NHL career ahead of him, but there are no guarantees at the moment that he will be a bonafide top-six center. The Rangers have options as well as time to figure out the center position, but it would sure make life a lot easier for the Rangers if they could add a first-line center whom the team could safely rely on for the next five-plus seasons.
Dubois had a breakout 2018-2019 season, scoring 27 goals and adding 34 assists in 82 games. He followed that up with a lukewarm 18 goals and 31 assists in 70 games in 2019-20. Still only 22 years old, he’s not going to be an elite center on par with Eichel or Auston Matthews but he has a safe floor as a first-line NHL center. Where he ends up between those margins is left to be seen. In any outcome, he’s exactly the kind of player the Rangers want.
And there’s plenty of reason to believe interest could be mutual. Then-Columbus President John Davidson, now with the Rangers, drafted Dubois third overall in 2016 and thinks highly of the 6’3” center. One can only guess at Dubois’ feelings about Davidson and how much influence that could have, but Davidson is unquestionably one of the most broadly respected executives in hockey.
Also appealing would be an opportunity to reunite with Artemiy Panarin, who was Dubois’ linemate during that highly successful sophomore season. It would be a pretty easy promise to make given there’s little concern of upsetting Mika Zibanejad, who is perfectly happy alongside Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich for the time being. On the whole, the Rangers’ glut of talented wingers offer certainty of high-caliber linemates.
The Rangers will be one of many teams to inquire on Dubois. Most teams could use a high-end center and it’s very rare that a young one hits the trade market. Columbus is also likely to strongly prefer trading Dubois to a Western Conference team. Or, at least, not to a division rival like the Rangers.
That’s going to be an obstacle, but there are other factors that could swing the pendulum back in the Rangers’ direction. Dubois lacks any trade protections and is under team control until 2024. Officially, Dubois has no say in where he does, or does not, end up. However, Dubois becomes a restricted free agent again in 2022. It’s unlikely that a team will pony up the assets necessary to acquire him without assurances that Dubois intends to make it his long-term home. Jacob Trouba more or less forced a trade from Winnipeg to the Rangers under similar circumstances in 2019.
Also to the Rangers’ advantage is that they have the assets to make a deal happen. The final package will depend on how patient the Blue Jackets are willing to be, how patient Dubois is willing to be, and how much legitimate competition there is on the trade market. In any case, the Rangers are well-positioned to make a great offer. Depending on whom you ask, they have either best or second-best (to the Kings) prospect pool in the NHL. That’s before considering the wealth of young talent on what will likely be the youngest roster in the NHL in 2020-21. One could spend hours speculating trade packages; Chytil feels like a safe starting point. Columbus may not want to move Dubois to the Rangers, if the Rangers present the best offer then they’re going to have to weigh the value of keeping him out of the division at their own expense.
If nothing else, Dubois’ addition to a rumor mill that could soon include Eichel gives the Rangers optionality. If the team misses out on one, there’s still a chance to make a big splash with the other. Better yet, the Rangers could play the Blue Jackets and Sabres against each other in negotiations. This is likely to be a long process with any movement until the season begins, and perhaps not until next offseason. If Dubois stays on the market long enough to see Eichel join him, it could create a dream scenario for a Rangers team that will be gearing up to make a major addition at center.