After his sudden, surprising dismissal as general manager of the New York Rangers earlier in 2021, Jeff Gorton is back in an NHL front office. The 53-year-old was recently hired by the Montreal Canadiens as their new executive vice president of hockey operations. Gorton, who is now best known for being the driving force behind the Rangers’ shift toward rebuilding a few years ago, will be tasked with overhauling a disappointing Canadiens team—and hiring a bilingual general manager in the wake of the club ousting Marc Bergevin and other front office executives.
Gorton, of course, is very familiar with the New York Rangers’ roster. As the Rangers are looking to fully turn the corner on their rebuild, the Canadiens find themselves ready to embark on one. Perhaps there is a fit for a trade between the two clubs given their respective positions, and Gorton’s knowledge of the Rangers’ prospect pool.
The following is all purely speculation, but here are some players from the Canadiens who might make sense as potential trade targets for the Rangers.
After the Vitali Kravtsov debacle, the offseason trade of Pavel Buchnevich, and a season-ending injury to Sammy Blais (the primary piece the Rangers got back for Buchnevich), the Rangers need a middle-six winger, and preferably one who can play on the right side. Recently, Julien Gauthier has emerged as an effective player in a more amplified role, and Dryden Hunt has played well in top-six minutes, but the Rangers would nevertheless be prudent to seek out depth and/or more certain solutions for at least the rest of this season.
Lehkonen, 26, is a pending arbitration-eligible restricted free agent (RFA) whose current cap hit is $2.3 million. He has shown some flashes of skill in Montreal but has never scored more than 31 points in a season, while also never eclipsing 18 goals, which he reached as a rookie back in 2016-17.
So, why would the Rangers potentially be interested? For one, he would be a good depth option who could fit flexibly in the lineup. Secondly, while his offensive impacts are negligible, he is a strong defensive player, based on Evolving Hockey’s player GAR (Goals Above Replacement) compilations from last season:
In that vein, he could serve a similar role to what Jesper Fast had with the Rangers, where he could potentially see some time in the top six as needed. Lehkonen, who hails from Finland, could also help fellow Finn Kaapo Kakko continue to feel more comfortable.
Given Lehkonen’s mild production, a trade shouldn’t cost the Rangers more than a mid-tier prospect and/or a draft pick outside of the first round. He could be someone Gorton is willing to dangle given his status as a pending RFA.
Ah yes, the Larry Brooks special, as any Rangers fan who follows coverage on Twitter would know. The dream might still be alive for Brooks, as the 27-year-old Anderson is locked into an average annual value (AAV) of $5.5 million through 2026-27. Gorton and his to-be-determined general manager might want to capitalize now while Anderson still has some value, before the contract becomes more difficult to move. It should be noted that Anderson also has a no-trade clause, but only for up to 8 teams this season.
Anderson also fits the Rangers’ preferred new direction of someone with grit and physicality who can also score, and he plays right wing. The problem? Well, while that contract might be something logical for a retooling team to offload, it’s not something the Rangers would want to be stuck with years down the road as they look to eventually sign Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière to new contracts in the coming couple of years, as well as Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller. Then there’s figuring out what to do with pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) center Ryan Strome, whether it’s signing him to a more lucrative deal or filling that center void in some other way. Add in the expensive long-term deals that are either already in place or set to kick in next year for Artemiy Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, Igor Shesterkin, and Barclay Goodrow, and there isn’t a ton of cap room down the road.
It’s possible the Rangers could work with Gorton and Montreal to find a way to make something work, be it through salary retention or a reduced return, but a deal for Anderson likely would not be worthwhile.
The 28-year-old Armia has a reasonably affordable contract, with an AAV of $3.4 million through 2024-25. Still, that’s not an insignificant amount to pay for someone who has never scored more than 30 points in a season. But the 6-foot-3 Armia fits the Rangers’ obsession with size, and would help solidify the middle six at a lower cost than someone like Anderson. His xGF impacts the past couple of seasons also measure out ahead of Anderson’s.
Toffoli is a very interesting potential candidate, if Gorton and the Habs would even consider trading him. Again, though, in a retool or rebuild, a lot can happen. The 29-year-old winger would add considerable scoring punch to the Rangers, and is reasonably affordable with an AAV of $4.25 million for the next three seasons. If he were on the market with the Habs possibly looking to clear more cap room, the cost would be more notable for the Rangers. Perhaps Kravtsov would come into play here.
To change it up at the end, let’s take a look at a defenseman. The Rangers seem pretty set on the blue line, but if they’re unsatisfied with Patrik Nemeth’s underwhelming start to the season, and/or want a better seventh defenseman than Jarred Tinordi, and/or want to let promising prospect Zac Jones marinate a bit more in Hartford, then Kulak could be a nice short-term stop gap.
While not an offensive dynamo, the 27-year-old’s defensive impact is excellent, and he carries a low AAV of $1.85 million before hitting UFA status this offseason. So the Rangers would likely not have to part with much, and would not be locked into anything long-term as they look for Jones and others to make the jump to full-time NHL defenseman.
As the Rangers look to keep winning and be in the conversation of contenders late in the season, they can and should look at deals that will solidify their depth without sacrificing much of the young core they’ve put together. Working with their former GM to take a look at some of these players might be one pathway towards that.