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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.

The Buzzer: Big nights for McDavid, Vasilevskiy

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Three Stars

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy

On paper, Thursday seemed like a rough draw for Vasilevskiy.

A foot injury sidelined him since Nov. 10, so you’d expect some rust. This was also a much-hyped game against a high-powered opponent in the Maple Leafs, and Toronto didn’t ease Vasi in, firing 49 shots on goal.

Only one of those attempts beat Vasilevskiy, however, as he returned to action to make 48 saves, a new career-high. The Lightning have now won eight in a row, and while seven came without Vasilevskiy, he absolutely earned this one.

Click here for more on that game, and Vasi’s big night.

2. Nino Niederreiter

Niederreiter ranked among three players who scored three points on Thursday, with Wild teammate Ryan Suter (three assists) also included.

The winger enjoyed the best all-around statistical night of the three, scoring two goals and one assist, generating a +4 rating, getting the game-winner, and firing four SOG.

Minnesota just seems to find ways to win under Bruce Boudreau, and maybe a hot streak from Niederreiter will power the latest surge. This strong night extended his goal streak to three games (four goals), giving him five points during that span. As is often the case with the underrated forward, Niederreiter stood out from a possession standpoint, too.

3. Mark Scheifele

Rounding out that trio of three-point nights, Scheifele scored one goal and two assists as the Jets narrowly edged the Oilers in overtime.

Scheifele logged quite a bit of ice time (23:55), enjoying a +2 rating and generating two SOG. He’s even hotter than Niederreiter lately, as Scheifele is now on a three-game multi-point streak, giving him two goals and six assists for a batty eight points in the past three contests.

While Niederreiter’s been up-and-down this season, Scheifele remains an elite point producer. He now has 40 points in just 31 games. tying Scheifele with his wingman Blake Wheeler for eighth in NHL scoring.

Highlights of the Night

This Vasilevskiy save is great enough to be worth another look (it originally appeared in this post):

This face is highlight-reel-material.

Speaking of other posts, Andrei Svechnikov‘s nice goal is probably worth your time. He might not have the best power-move-type goal in that game, judging by this Artturi Lehkonen tally:

Put your paws together for Barclay:

Ouch

Basically, James Reimer suffered through the opposite of that amazing Vasilevskiy stop.

Factoids

Connor McDavid hit 300+ career points before reaching age 22. Click here for a lot more perspective on his first 240 regular-season games.

Speaking of history, more astounding Patrik Laine fun:

Patrick Marleau‘s a machine.

Scores

BUF 3 – ARI 1
CBJ 4 – LAK 1
MTL 6 – CAR 4
TBL 4 – TOR 1
NSH 4 – VAN 3 (OT)
MIN 5 – FLA 1
WIN 5 – EDM 4 (OT)
SJS 3 – DAL 2

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.

Nylander already showing flashes of brilliance for Maple Leafs

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After a contract holdout that extended almost until the last minute on Dec. 1, William Nylander finally signed with the Maple Leafs, yet he was unable to generate a point in his first two games back. One could almost feel the restlessness build in Toronto, but there were breakthrough moments in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Granted, there were also some breakdowns on Nylander’s part, too. Some of that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to NHL hockey, but rust is a factor, as well.

Nylander generated his first two points of 2018-19 in Tuesday’s win, both being assists.

His first didn’t seem like an assist at all, as Morgan Rielly was credited with a goal after it became clear that Dougie Hamilton was guilty of a tragicomic own-goal. Nylander’s second assist came on a brilliant pass to Patrick Marleau, who converted on what was the hockey equivalent of a layup:

Nylander might just deserve that token assist, really, as he made another brilliant pass to Marleau that did not result in a goal.

That’s some great stuff, and the Maple Leafs have the potential to be truly terrifying if Nylander, Marleau, and Nazem Kadri can make for a strong line while Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner also confound defenses at different times. We’ve seen a lot of NHL teams load up with supreme top lines, hoping that the gains would offset any losses. Toronto could score a monumental advantage over most opponents if they can really leverage this depth.

As tantalizing as those thoughts are, it’s not as though Nylander is a finished product.

The 22-year-old experienced some sloppy moments during that same game against Carolina, finishing the night with six penalty minutes. Maybe his high-sticking penalty ranks as one of those things that just happens, but Nylander essentially had to take an interference penalty out of exhaustion, as he was caught out on the ice during a shift that went too long.

After the game, Nylander acknowledged that some shifts went too long, while Mike Babcock had an interesting take on what the winger is going through.

“It’s going to take some time, let’s not get carried away,” Babcock said. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open. As soon as it is in contact and you’ve got to get your legs going and you can get stuck out on a shift. He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift … It’s going to take some time. We’ll be patient and he has to be.”

Maple Leafs fans should be heartened by that last sentence: the team will be patient with Nylander. That’s crucial, and it’s especially promising coming from a coach who can sometimes be … hard-driving, like Babcock’s known to be.

Now, about that patience: when should the Maple Leafs expect Nylander to be at full speed?

Ignoring the potential advantages that come with skipping months of bumps and bruises by beginning his season in December instead of October, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Toronto believes that a player gets truly up-and-running about 12 days after training camp.

By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.

That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.

As much as any other team, the Maple Leafs have the resources to research such sports science issues, so the league should keep an eye on developments like these. If any league could see a franchise exploit “rest versus rust” for, say, gains in the playoffs, it might be someone in the NHL. Plenty of franchises lack that eye for innovation, so those who do might enjoy at least a brief edge.

The thing is, it’s human nature to fixate on mistakes like Nylander’s interference penalty, and lose sight of the big picture (his assists, and strong overall play).

Consider that, according to Natural Stat Trick’s individual rates, Nylander’s Corsi For Percentage was 61.29-percent on Tuesday, the second-best mark of any Maple Leafs player in that game (Igor Ozhiganov topped all at 65.22). Perhaps you can nitpick that a bit being that Nylander didn’t face the toughest Hurricanes competition during much of the contest, but you’d be grasping at straws.

In other words, there’s already a lot to like about Nylander three games into his latest season, even if there are signs of growing pains. He could be a boon to the Maple Leafs in his current form, and chances are, he’ll get up to game speed and shake off all the rust, possibly quite soon.

Long story short, Nylander’s showing that he’s worth the wait.

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.

Get ready for full-strength Maple Leafs, as Nylander’s set to debut

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Even the Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest haters should turn their frowns upside down for at least a little while, as hockey fans are rapidly approaching quite the gift.

Multiple reporters (including Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie) pass along word that William Nylander announced that he’ll play in the Maple Leafs’ next game, which takes place against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. To make the situation even more joyous, consider that the game is happening in Toronto.

To make things more delightful – and maybe excite a dork or two in advanceAuston Matthews hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury. Thursday will only represent Matthews’ fourth game back in the lineup, yet he’s been making up for lost time, as the American star has five goals and two assists for seven points in three contests. (Yes, seriously.)

The Red Wings should expect to hold on for dear life, as Thursday represents the first time that we’ll get a full vision of what this Maple Leafs team can be in 2018-19: Matthews and Nylander joining John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and other talented offensive players to form what could be one of the most explosive offenses in recent history.

[Can they keep the band together beyond this season? That’s another story.]

Zooming out a bit, it will be fascinating to see how head coach Mike Babcock pieces things together.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s numbers, Matthews and Zach Hyman were far and away Nylander’s most common even-strength linemates last season. Hyman’s instead been lining up with Tavares and Marner lately, while Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen have been Matthews’ wingers.

It’s been noted that Kapanen was dreaming about Nylander returning, but will his buddy’s reemergence bump him down the Maple Leafs’ lineup? Someone has to get moved down the order, after all … unless Babcock boldly put Nylander on the third line with another overqualified forward in Nazem Kadri.

That’s anyone’s guess, and as hockey fans know, coaches tend to throw line combinations in a blender, anyway. Injuries, cold/hot streaks, and the scoreboard can all affect how things shake out.

Even so, it’s intriguing to see how some are drawing up combos.

Jeff Veillette, for example, argues for a line of Andreas Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander (with Tavares joined by Hyman and Marner) in this post for The Faceoff Circle. It’s interesting to see Veillette discuss salary cap implications in his explanation:

This line exists to win hockey games, not chess matches. If it was a chess match, it would probably be closer to what the coaching staff is doing to win hockey games – Patrick Marleau near the top to try to pad his point totals (in case he’s willing to waive his No-Movement Clause on the final year of his contract this summer), and Johnsson near the bottom to keep his production down (so he doesn’t cash in on his “prove it” year).

Stylistically, Nylander would certainly make a lot of sense back with Matthews, at least with Marner clicking so well as Tavares’ wingman. Nylander’s a right-handed shot who can create great opportunities for Matthews, while also punishing opponents severely if they overcommit to stopping that connection. It’s pretty terrifying to imagine having to deal with a pair of one-two punches on the scale of Matthews – Nylander and Tavares – Marner, especially considering how successful Toronto’s been, even at less-than-full-strength.

The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel also postulates (sub required) that Nylander could be a big boost to the Maple Leafs’ second power-play unit.

Putting Nylander in that group makes some sense. For one thing, that top group is dominating opponents. For another, Siegel notes that Babcock still gives plenty of PP ice time to Marleau, Jake Gardiner, and the second unit. Some might lean toward the “load up on one group” mantra, but it becomes increasingly sensible when you realize that top players often are the ones drawing penalties, so giving them a breather (rather than throwing them right back on the ice, or extending shifts) makes a lot of sense.

So, whether you go big picture or really get into the nuts and bolts, Nylander’s addition is a significant boon for the Maple Leafs.

Delightfully, it should bump an already-exciting team to an absolutely must-watch level.

And, hey, you could always go back to hating the Maple Leafs again when the games start to matter a bit more. You know, if hating the Leafs is your thing.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Maple Leafs, Sabres meet in Atlantic Division clash

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tonight’s matchup features two of the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak and are 11-3-0 in their past 14 games, while the Sabres have dropped three straight, including a 2-1 loss last night to Nashville.

After missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, Auston Matthews has three goals and an assist in two games since his return. Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games this season, the best goals per game mark of any player in the league. Toronto native Jeff Skinner has been electric for Buffalo this season, leading the Sabres with 20 goals (t-2nd in NHL). He had just 24 goals all last season with Carolina and played in all 82 games.

This will be the first of four meetings between these clubs this season. They will also meet in Toronto on Feb. 25 and March 3, before ending their regular season series on March 20 in Buffalo. The Leafs and Sabres have alternated wins and losses over the past six meetings.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack EichelSam Reinhart
Tage ThompsonCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieEvan RodriguesVladimir Sobotka
Patrik BerglundJohan LarssonZemgus Girgensons

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.