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.
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 Spooner – Ryan 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.