The New York Rangers signaled that they were rebuilding at the end of the 2017-18 season, but they didn’t necessarily indicate that it would be a long one. Acquiring Jacob Trouba‘s RFA rights from the Winnipeg Jets goes a long way in accelerating that process.
The Rangers sent the Jets a first-round pick (20th overall, which the Jets sent to the Rangers for a few months of Kevin Hayes‘ services) and defenseman Neal Pionk for Trouba’s rights.
To emphasize: the picture isn’t yet complete, as to fully judge this deal, we’ll need to find out how much Trouba, 25, receives from the Rangers. One would assume that it would be a pretty hard sell to imagine Trouba actually not signing at all with the Rangers … but it’s still not a guarantee that he’ll ink a deal with New York until he does it.
What the Rangers get in Trouba
As discussed in this post about how NHL teams are more likely to improve their defense through trades than free agency this offseason, it’s my opinion that – for as impressive as Trouba has already been – it’s possible that the defenseman could show more.
Honestly, it feels like PHT’s been wondering about Trouba’s future with Winnipeg for ages. Back in August 2016, it was noted that Trouba rescinded his trade request during frosty negotiations on a “bridge” contract, one we thought might backfire for Winnipeg down the line when discussing it in 2017.
It wasn’t just about money, either. Trouba wanted a prominent role as a right-handed defensemen, yet he sometimes saw his opportunities go to Dustin Byfuglien (reasonable, but debatable) or Tyler Myers (not so reasonable) instead. None of this is to say that Trouba was “buried” in the lineup, yet there was sort of a start-and-stop element. Consider that, after peaking with 24:58 TOI per game in 2016-17, Trouba’s minutes plummeted to 21:54 per game in 2017-18, and only went up to 22:53 on average this past season.
Trouba erupted in 2018-19, nonetheless, setting easily a career-high with 50 points (his previous high mark was 33).
Now, you can get carried away by over-projecting Trouba to the point that you get out of control. Maybe he’s not a superstar in the making, but he’s very, very, good, and instantly becomes the Rangers’ best defenseman, and one of their best overall assets alongside underrated center Mika Zibanejad, and the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft.
The question for the Rangers isn’t if Trouba is good, but just how good. It also brings up interesting questions about what’s next, beyond drafting the second pick, whether that be Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes.
Beyond that, though, does Trouba make the Rangers a more interesting consideration for Artemi Panarin, or some other free agent? Trouba’s young enough that, if the Rangers don’t get the greatest luck in accelerating this rebuild really fast, they can still succeed with a slower approach.
Either way … goodness, are the Rangers ever doing a deft job lately. It’s OK for fans to just “chef’s kiss” endlessly.
The Jets’ side, on the other hand, is more fraught.
It will probably help the sanity of Jets fans to look at the first-rounder as merely a first-rounder, and the 20th pick at that, and not as an alternate view: that the Rangers basically kept that pick warm while Hayes was a Jet, and then sent it back to Winnipeg.
(Seriously, Jets fans, try to look at it as positively as you can.)
It’s up to debate if a) the Rangers successfully pulled off a “pump and dump” with Neal Pionk or b) the Jets are actually realistic about Pionk’s limited potential, and will hope he can merely be a contributor.
Pionk, 23, just completed his second NHL season, but it was essentially his first full one (28 games in 2017-18; 73 games in 2018-19). He’s shown some flashes of brilliance on the offensive side, managing to score 40 points over his first 101 regular-season games. Heck, if Jets fans want to soothe and delude themselves, they merely need to watch the memorable goal the defenseman scored against the Montreal Canadiens back in November:
But, yeah, the bigger picture with Pionk is … less than ideal, as he was under water possession-wise.
It wouldn’t be shocking if a lot of those tough numbers come from being in over his head (even a defense-poor team like the Rangers were putting Pionk in a tough spot, as he averaged 21:30 TOI per game through two seasons), so maybe Pionk can help out in a less pronounced role.
Again, some of this comes down to public vs. private. Perhaps the Jets can spin it publicly by trumpeting Pionk’s face-value numbers (and the first-rounder), while privately realizing that Pionk is closer than a bit part than to a savvy Trouba replacement. Under almost all circumstances, any Pionk vs. Trouba comparisons would be unflattering, and unfair.
Jets fueled their own mistake
Of course, the biggest key is to remember the bind the Jets found themselves in. If they knew they couldn’t afford to keep Trouba, what with the salary cap crunch coming with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor as prominent RFAs, then they needed to do something.
Personally, I would have been desperate to try to bribe a different rebuilder to soak up problem contracts like that of Dmitry Kulikov and/or Bryan Little, if at all possible, but that either wasn’t a conversation that worked out, or the Jets simply didn’t want to have the conversation at all.
But, again, it’s not as though this situation just popped out of thin air.
The Jets have been putting off a long-term deal with Trouba for some time now, and eventually it ended his tenure. We’ve seen certain “bridge” situations turn untenable before, with P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens (and also Ryan O'Reilly with the Colorado Avalanche) coming to mind. Those two situations obviously backfired, and it’s another lesson to other teams: lock up your core pieces for term, then see if you can keep the Littles and add the Kulikovs.
Maybe the Jets simply never believed that Trouba is a “core” guy, which would honestly be baffling. For plenty of Jets fans, it could be a nauseating experience to see Trouba answer those questions, one way or another, as a member of the New York Rangers.
MORE: Trouba was one of the headliners of this potential trade targets list, but he wasn’t alone.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.