Ryan McDonagh’s Rumored Trade Is The Most Important Event In Jeff Gorton’s Tenure

The rumors are more than rumors now. It’s not that there’s all that much more substance to them, but they’re no longer hushed whispers by staffers after a few drinks, or blind speculation from people covering the team.

The New York Rangers do appear to be, at the very least, exploring the trade market for current captain Ryan McDonagh. More on that here from us, and below from Elliotte Friedman’s always amazing 31 Thoughts column:

11. Will Ryan McDonagh be added to that list? On Tuesday morning, the Rangers woke up one point out of the playoffs, and Henrik Lundqvist is having a Vezina-calibre season. But there is a growing sense they just don’t see it long-term and are willing to make changes. That undoubtedly means the UFAs (David Desharnais, Michael Grabner, Nick Holden, Rick Nash). It also means they will listen on McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello, but only if given good reason to pursue. It’s interesting. There is a growing group of sellers, but how many buyers are there?

This has the feeling of a true turning point for the trajectory of the franchise, and a watershed opportunity and moment for general manager Jeff Gorton. This is without a doubt, the most important situation Gorton has (and perhaps ever may) navigate the organization through. A success here could be a masterstroke that turns the tide of the Rangers’ lack of elite forwards and prospects, setting the team up for competitive hockey for years to come (even if you need to be a little patient for it). A mistake could plunge the Rangers into the lingering darkness that comes from losing their best defenseman without getting a proper return for him. There really is no gray here, it’s all black and white.

The Rangers don’t have to trade McDonagh, which helps when they’re attemping to leverage a bidding war between interested parties. It also helps that the Rangers are making this decision now – since McDonagh has the most value to an acquiring team as they’ll get two playoff runs and a full season out of his insanely efficient $4.7-million cap hit. It’s like the Keith Yandle trade the Rangers made, only on steroids.

It’s difficult to judge just how much a guy like McDonagh could bring back. As an example, Yandle’s return was unquestionably the Rangers’ best prospect, a young regular manning the Rangers’ blue line, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick. Even a similar return for McDonagh would give the Rangers the boost they desperately need to their farm system; bringing more youth onto the team and picks to help continue the re-stocking of their cupboard.

The type of return becomes increasingly important as the Rangers (and really Gorton) try to forecast their future. McDonagh’s return would be the critical starting point towards the goal of future contention with a revitalized (and youthful) core. The reality here is that while a McDonagh trade might look like the Rangers hitting the nuclear button and beginning a multi-year fallout, it might not actually be.

Say the Rangers got William Nylander or Mitch Marner from the Maple Leafs along with a first- or second-round pick – they’re instantly adding a potentially elite-level forward and a high pick to help them in the draft. Moving on from pending UFAs Grabner and Nash – which should happen regardless – will add more picks and prospects to the plan. Gorton can call up guys like Ryan Graves, Neal Pionk, or Anthony DeAngelo to man the blue line until this summer, then he can make a call on how to proceed moving forward. The Rangers would get a good, hard look at one of their top defensive prospects and set themselves up for the future all in one stroke.

(Editor’s Note: Since this will probably cause a ton of strife from outside fans, I am basing the Leafs return for McDonagh on a loose package of what the Rangers gave for Yandle. I privately reached out to two respected Leafs writers about the above and both saw it as a fair ask).

They could also try to move in a different direction. Perhaps they try to bring back someone on defense (as Mike talked about on the podcast, they’re moving your best defensive player and not getting a defenseman back in my example above). Maybe the Rangers try to swing a deal with Vegas in return for a first-round pick, Erik Brannstrom, and Shea Theodore. There are options here for the Rangers to get what they need from McDonagh, then use what they don’t get back in other deals.

If the trade is screwed up? If the Rangers get back another DeAngelo (an aging prospect with a past that isn’t living up to expectations)? Then this is a catastrophic failure.

The Rangers need to do their homework here and they have to make sure they’re making the right decisions. If the Rangers have no NHL assets in return for a potential McDonagh trade by the midway point of next year (as was the case with the Stepan return until injuries forced DeAngelo back onto Broadway), then it should be a fireable offense without any hesitation or mercy. The media/fans who defend the Stepan deal can hide behind the “they traded him for cap space” argument all they want, but you don’t trade core players for cap space. It’s not bad business, it’s horrific business.

Yes, there are strong emotional pulls from potentially trading guys like McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello. When the Rangers were rumored to be moving Ryan Callahan (or at least thinking about it) I wrote the following about the business side:

[Callahan] makes the players, fanbase and organization proud every time he steps on the ice. But that term is simply too much. Callahan is dangerously close to (if not already in) the “injury prone” zone. It’s not his fault, it’s just his body breaking down with his style of play (ironically the thing everyone loves about him). Maybe that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen eventually. Every player watches their body break down at some point. Callahan is no different, but with his aggressive style of play it wouldn’t be surprising if his body was breaking down at an accelerated rate. Sure, he might have four or five great years left in him, but what if in two years he’s not the normal Ryan Callahan? What if he isn’t the normal Ryan Callahan with four or five years remaining on that contract? What happens then? Same thing with Girardi. Same thing with a lot of free agents, actually.

General managers are tasked with answering these questions when it comes to negotiations. No one gets off the hook. Certain factors do play something of a role (leadership, captaincy, role) but at the end of the day decisions like this have to be boiled down.

Where Callahan’s concerns were of an injury nature (and boy was I generous in giving him four or five great years, although I was spot on with Girardi), McDonagh and Zuccarello’s are on a team trajectory level. Is it worth keeping McDonagh to lose in the first round of the playoffs this year? Do the Rangers really want to be on the other side of an eight-year deal for McDonagh when he’s 30? He’ll deserve every penny he gets, of course, but don’t you want another team to deal with those risks?

The Rangers aren’t contenders right now, and it appears they know it. There is a serious danger with being stuck in the “middle” – they’re not good enough to be true contenders, but not bad enough to get high-end draft picks. The Rangers have lived in this world for most of the post-lockout history, with a few exceptions. Savvy work with late-round picks and NCAA free agents to get players like Kevin Hayes and Pavel Buchnevich mitigated some the damages of not having higher draft picks, but the lingering effects still remain.

The Rangers simply can’t afford to keep buying their way into first and second round playoff losses.

Last summer was a solid step forward in the Rangers’ thinking, if not their execution. Move a guy a year or two too soon, rather than a year or two too late; the Derick Brassard trade should be looked at as a prime example of how to do this right. But as the Stepan situation showed, it’s not just about thinking the right thing, it’s about executing it as well.

There are plenty of business reasons why the Rangers should move on from McDonagh at the deadline. They just need to make sure that it all makes sense.

Even if your heart hurts when you do it.