Why Are the Rangers Scouting the Kings?

The Blueshirts have been sending scouts to check in on the Los Angeles Kings an awful lot recently. It started on February 3rd, with well-connected Kings reporter John Hoven tweeting that the Rangers were scouting the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ AHL affiliate. Hoven further claimed that the Rangers were making “a big push to scout the Kings’ organization in the coming week.”

The Rangers have continued to scout Los Angeles’ AHL team on multiple occasions, including yesterday, and they even took a look at the Kings on February 16th. The tip from Hoven plus common sense insinuate that this is well beyond the realm of routine scouting homework. The Rangers are specifically looking at the Kings’ organization, from top-to-bottom, in regards to a potential trade.

The obvious question is, then, at whom are they looking? There are no equally obvious answers. It’s hard to imagine either team opting to become a seller this trading deadline, justifiably or not. There are no notable players that one team needs and the other is willing to part with. At face value, they simply don’t look like sensible trading partners.

Something is evidently up, though, so we can try to make some guesses. Defenseman Alec Martinez is maybe the lowest common denominator; a puck-moving, offensive defenseman that Rangers fans know all too well from the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. For the Kings, extensions for multiple key restricted free agents as well as the upcoming expansion draft mean that someone will likely have to be sacrificed. Martinez and his $4M cap hit fit the bill, and while he’s not on any insider’s official list of deadline trade bait, implications are that Los Angeles is open to moving him in the right deal. The Rangers’ need for an upgrade on defense is obvious. His age and cap hit are extremely concerning, but there is no doubting that he would immediately become the team’s second-best defenseman.

If Martinez is the main target, then the Rangers’ heavy scouting of their AHL affiliate - not the NHL team - would be awfully curious. It is possible that they could be looking at pieces to round out a larger deal. Occam’s Razor, however, suggests that AHL players are the main focus.

It’s hard to narrow down which AHL players are relevant because it’s completely unknown what kind of trade is in the works here. A trade involving Ryan McDonagh (theoretically) is going to unearth very different prospects than one involving Brandon Pirri (theoretically). Nonetheless, there are a few logical players one could predict the Rangers are intrigued by.

There are two names worth starting with. Adrian Kempe, 20, is a left-wing drafted by Los Angeles late in the first-round in 2014, and he has posted solid numbers in the AHL for his age the last two seasons. Kempe earned his NHL debut on Thursday, which is the one Kings game to which the Rangers sent multiple scouts. Kempe is the Kings best prospect by a good margin, and so they will not with him without a great reason to. Kempe’s inclusion would mandate this trade discussion be centered around the likes of Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes, or J.T. Miller. Or maybe, if the Kings have absolutely lost their minds, Michael Grabner.

Defenseman Paul Ladue is the most obvious fit for the Rangers. The 24-year-old was a big part of North Dakota’s 2016 NCAA Championship, and by all accounts is performing well in his first pro season He has even earned three NHL games so far. He’s no future Norris winner, but as a cheap, young right-handed defenseman with legitimate two-way ability at the NHL level, Ladue is exactly what the Rangers need.

Admittedly, it’s hard to come up with reasons why the Kings would be bullish on moving Ladue. Again, the salary cap plus expansion draft will force them to make some changes on defense, and Ladue is their best choice for internal promotion. However, he was also called up for the one Kings game that the Rangers chose to scout. If Kempe’s not the target, then a hard look at Ladue is the most logical explanation for that endeavor. Virtually every player in the world is tradable for the right price, and Ladue is not even close to an exception. The Kings are fighting just to make the playoffs, and are at risk of a third-straight failed season. Depending on what the Rangers are dangling, the Kings might be anxious enough to grudgingly part with him.

Beyond that, it is anyone’s guess. Save for goalie, the Rangers need any prospects they can get their hands on. Defenseman Kurtis MacDermid would be a fitting piece to add as filler for a bigger deal or in a depth move for, say, Brandon Pirri or Oscar Lindberg. The Kings’ forward options for similar deals, in my opinion, are Mike Amadio and Johnny Brodzinski. Those options, in my opinion, are more enticing.

Veteran forward Teddy Purcell is maybe also in the Rangers’ cross-hairs. Purcell was a quality depth forward in the NHL for eight seasons before getting demoted, and passing through waivers, after struggling out of the gate this season. Of course, the Rangers are not exactly lacking forwards, so his addition would presumably be as a replacement for someone the Rangers ship off elsewhere. Veteran Tom Gilbert would have made sense, as he is a defenseman who fits the Rangers’ plan to shore up the right side without breaking the bank. However, the Capitals acquired him on Wednesday, with the Rangers’ scouting of the Kings persisting past that.

It is worth pointing out that this does not necessarily have to be deadline-oriented. The Rangers may very well be doing homework on an offseason trade. And, of course, heavy scouting does not automatically mean that a trade will come to fruition. It’s hard to see what the Rangers have in mind and how it will end up. But this has been the norm, for better or worse, for quite some time. Without mystery, drama, and excitement, it would not be a true Rangers’ trading deadline.