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How should Rangers approach the trade deadline?

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Whether by design or not, the New York Rangers have been better than expected so far in 2018-19.

Despite waving the white flag of rebuild, they’re only one point behind the Islanders for third place in the Metro, which would help them sneak into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With five of their next six games at home, they might even make that jump, at least briefly.

But, honestly, it still seems like the Rangers should be sellers come trade deadline time.

Just about every stat points to slippage, if not a collapse. They remain one of the weakest possession teams in the NHL, but you can go simpler and merely look at their -10 goal differential so far this season.

So, the Rangers should sell … but how far should they go?

Let’s run down some of the most interesting considerations, from the no-brainers to more far-fetched scenarios, like actually trading Hank.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Mats Zuccarello: 31 years old, $4.5 million

It looks like the veteran winger-wizard could return Friday, which would mark his first game since Nov. 23. It also seems like Zuccarello realizes a trade might happen, as he discussed with Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post.

“There’s no secret that it’s out there. For me, I prepare for everything, try to do my best as long as I’m here. Hopefully I’m here for a long time. If not, it’s nothing I can control.”

The Norwegian forward doesn’t have much power over the situation, but the Rangers have the power to get maximum bang for their buck if they do part ways with Zuccarello.

Before he began his injury absence, Zuccarello was on a five-game pointless drought, and he failed to score in seven of his last eight games, managing a goal and an assist in one productive game during that span. Despite that slump, his overall season numbers are reasonable (10 points in 17 games), and it wouldn’t be surprising if he surged into the trade deadline.

Considering his reasonable cap hit and track record as someone who comes in at 53-61 points during a healthy season, Zuccarello would be a boon for virtually every contender looking for a skillful rental.

For all we know, the Rangers could convince him to come back after a brief run somewhere else, which doesn’t seem outrageous after seeing Zuccarello describe New York as his “second home.”

That scenario would be a “eat your cake and have it too” scenario, as the Rangers could land some assets, but not go too long with a rebuild, if they got Zuccarello back.

Either way, trading Zuccarello seems like the right call. If I were a contender, he’d also be  a very, very desirable target.

Kevin Hayes, 26, $5.175M

In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reported that the Boston Bruins might have some interest in Boston native Hayes, which wasn’t the first time the team was connected with the player. Friedman also pointed to Colorado as a team that could really use some more support at center.

While Zuccarello could be “pumped up,” it’s hard to imagine opinions going any higher on Hayes. He has 21 points in 30 games this season, including two goals and two assists over his last two contests. At this .70-point-per-game pace (about 54 points over 82 games), Hayes could very well shatter his career-high of 49 points. He’s getting easily the most ice time of his career (19:14 TOI average), and Hayes’ possession numbers are at least strong relative to his teammates.

Is this a straight-up “pump-and-dump?” I have no clue, but the Rangers should be giddy if they can get serious assets for Hayes.

In the case of Hayes (in particular) and Zuccarello (to a lesser extent), the Rangers might also be willing to retain salary to make a trade work with a cash-strapped contender. After all, they’d only be on the hook for a portion of that cap hit for the remainder of this season, so it wouldn’t block future efforts.

(According to Cap Friendly, the Rangers are retaining one of two possible salaries, as they’re absorbing $900K from the Ryan SpoonerRyan Strome trade through this season and 2019-20.)

TWO YEARS LEFT

Chris Kreider, 27, $4.625M expires after 2019-20

The Rangers have quite a collection of players with two years remaining, but Kreider’s the headliner because he poses such interesting questions to New York.

If they wanted to move Kreider, you’d expect a hefty return. The winger presents something for everyone. Old-school types should like his nastiness. Analytics-minded execs will notice that his underlying stats have basically always towered above his teammates. His size is a strength, and just about everyone should love his speed relative to that formidable frame.

His contract is also wonderful for a contender: it’s a bargain, and you’d get two playoff runs out of it. If the agitating winger rubs people the wrong way, at least the term is short enough that you could cut ties. Just about perfect.

Those very factors should also register with the Rangers, especially if they’re looking at this as an extremely quick rebuild. If I were running the show, I’d hesitate to move Kreider, unless the ransom was just undeniable.

Vladislav Namestnikov, 26, $4M through 2019-20 and others

The Rangers have quite a few other two-year deals they could move. Getting more for Namestnikov would only increase the quantity of assets they’ve garnered from moving Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.

There are other, cheaper options, too. Someone might like Jesper Fast, 27, at a cool $1.85M. Jimmy Vesey (25, $2.275M) and Ryan Strome (25, $3.1M) could fit into more complicated trades. Similarly, Matt Beleskey’s $1.9M cap hit might work for cap fodder.

THE WHOPPER

Henrik Lundqvist, 36, $8.5M through 2020-21

Back in a May episode of The Hockey PDOcast, former Rangers staffer William Kawam described essentially being laughed at when bringing up trading Lundqvist during a discussion that a bunch of team execs, including Rangers GM Jeff Gorton.

The Rangers were courageous in sending out a rebuilding press release last season, but are they trade-Lundqvist brave? I’m not so sure. Especially in the event that Lundqvist wouldn’t want to relocate, which would limit options to local rivals, like the goalie-needy Islanders.

But it’s a topic that should be broached, however gingerly, for a wide array of reasons.

And it’s not just about brushing their long-time icon aside. Lundqvist wants to win a Stanley Cup, so a change of scenery would make sense for the competitive goalie. (Granted, that argument wouldn’t go too far if the only option really is the Isles. Yes, they’re better than expected, but a contender? That’s a tough sell.)

There really might not be a better time for the Rangers to trade Lundqvist and still get something back for him, particularly if he actually would leave his comfort zone. A wide array of teams would find their ears perking up by the concept of landing Lundqvist. Imagine how much interest might rise if the Rangers ate at least some of that $8.5M cap hit to make something work?

So, there’s already a lot of demand for goalies, from the Islanders, Flyers, and Hurricanes to, perhaps even the Flames?

If courageous enough to do so, the Rangers would be wise to be proactive, especially if the Blackhawks decide to bite the bullet with Corey Crawford and/or the Kings embrace reality and move Jonathan Quick.

It helps that Lundqvist’s enjoyed a pretty strong 2018-19 season, at least for a 36-year-old. King Henrik has a .916 save percentage through 23 games, and that’s with a tough mini-stretch (nine goals allowed in two contest) putting a slight damper on his numbers.

Moving Lundqvist would require “ice water in the veins,” yet you can argue that there might not be a better time to do it than between now and the 2019 trade deadline.

***

The Rangers could get really creative with this situation, if they’d like.

Would they absorb problem contracts from contenders either during the deadline or during 2019 NHL Draft weekend, maybe taking a bribe to accept the last year of Ryan Callahan/Patrick Marleau/etc.? Might they go even further by stomaching even tougher, longer deals (Brent Seabrook? Milan Lucic?) if they view this as a rebuild that requires more drastic surgeries? Things could get really interesting if they instead convinced someone else to take on Marc Staal or Kevin Shattenkirk.

One thing’s clear: the Rangers would likely miss out on some golden opportunities if they did nothing.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.