The Rangers are going to lose a player to the Vegas Golden Knights. We’ve known that for a long time now. What we maybe did not anticipate is having zero clarification on whom that might – or might not – be this close to the expansion draft. The Rangers made no moves prior to Saturday’s roster freeze. They could still theoretically make a deal with Vegas to dissuade them from taking a particular player. However, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that, as of now, nothing is on the table right now. The Rangers “seem resigned to losing (a) player.”
As a reminder, here is what the Rangers’ unprotected list looks like, of which Vegas will select one player.
Certainly, some of these players would be bigger losses than other players. I ranked all exposed players in terms of how big of a loss each would be should Vegas take him.
7. Kevin Klein
It appears as though defenseman Kevin Klein is heading to Europe to finish off his hockey career. However, Klein has not officially committed to that. Were he to change his mind, the Rangers would be in trouble. The Rangers need fresh faces on defense in a bad way, and Klein’s $2.9M cap hit over the next two years would be a considerable hindrance. Should he decide to remain in the NHL, perhaps Vegas would be interested in adding a character, veteran defenseman to what will likely be a young defensive group. Realistically, this isn’t happening. It sure would be nice, though!
6. Matt Puempel/Steve Kampfer/Brandon Pirri/etc.
Why would the Golden Knights take Matt Puempel or Steve Kampfer? I don’t know. Why did Boston trade a third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo? Why would 20-thousand people pack an arena for a Nickelback concert? Sometimes humans do things that are silly. It’s more likely that Joe goes the entire summer without making a single typo than it is that Vegas takes one of the filler players who are technically exposed. But if they do, I’ll be really smug about including them on this list.
Hang with me here, but this could be an outcome that makes sense for everybody.
Based on the protection lists, Vegas is going to end up with a number of decent defensemen. However, they are mostly depth-caliber players. Between now and Thursday’s expansion draft, Vegas is granted the ability to negotiate, and sign, contracts with all free agents with the purpose of selecting them in the expansion draft. We see non-traditional hockey markets trade for UFA rights every summer with the purpose of negotiating with quality players before they can talk to everyone else. If 15 other teams have tabled offers to Smith in July, then Vegas’ chances of landing him are low. But if they can sneak in a quality offer now? Maybe they can acquire a really good defenseman.
It boils down to how close the Rangers are to a Smith extension. If progress has been made and an extension seems likely, then Vegas ambushing and locking him up would be very bad. Alternatively, if it looks like Smith going to the open market, then perhaps Smith heading to the desert would be perfectly okay. It would be far better to lose him to Vegas than it would be to lose another player, and then have Smith go elsewhere in July anyway.
The Main Contenders
Grabner’s 2016-2017 season was magical, but if you look under the hood his absurd goal total maybe hid some problems elsewhere. His impact on possession was below league average, and it got exposed towards the end of the season once his line with Hayes and Miller stopped scoring. There’s no doubt that Grabner has an ability to put pucks in the net, but 27 goals is not repeatable. This is not to say that he’s not a solid player. Of course he is. However, soon to be 30 and a free agent next July, he’s the most preferable departure among players whom Vegas are realistically considering.
3. Jesper Fast
In a vacuum, Fast is a the kind of player every team wants. He is an extremely good fourth-line wing. His defensive impact is fantastic. He is also under team control for a couple more years. Still, his weak offensive impact limits his upside, and now that he is nearly 26 what you see is what you get. Fourth-line wing is, by far, the easiest spot to fill in the NHL. Every summer there are a number of them available for cheap (Grabner last summer, Stalberg in 2015, etc). Furthermore, Nicklas Jensen was an absolute force for the Wolf Pack last season and is ready for a shot in the NHL. In a perfect world, the Rangers keep Fast. The expansion draft makes that impossible, though, and losing Fast would simply be of relatively low inconvenience.
2. Antti Raanta
In many ways, losing Raanta would be a low-impact outcome. Assuming all goes well, Raanta would only play 28-35 games next season, plus none in the playoffs. Then, he’s an unrestricted free agent, where he would surely sign with a team that is able to offer more opportunity and money than the Rangers could. Henrik Lundqvist’s time is winding down, but 2018-2019 is probably too soon to pass the torch. If we assume the goal of next season in winning the Stanley Cup, the difference between Raanta and another decent backup goaltender is small potatoes. In terms of his long-term future with the Rangers, there almost certainly is none.
Yet losing him for nothing would be an unbelievably poor mismanagement of assets. The Rangers have aggressively moved prospects and picks the last five years and need to fill the cupboard in a big way. A number of teams are looking for a boost in net and Raanta is the best young goaltender on the market. A first-round pick is not an unrealistic return for him. On a more conservative return, they’d still receive a solid injection of draft picks. Instead, they might gift Vegas the most valuable goaltender on the market.
As I wrote a month ago, Oscar Lindberg is the Rangers’ all-around most valuable asset vulnerable to the expansion draft. When healthy, he has shown the ability to be a quality bottom-six center. He’s strong on the boards, brings secondary scoring, and wins defensive zone faceoffs. Unlike depth wingers, who are dime-a-dozen, depth centers are worth their weight in gold. The Maple Leafs, not even a contender this spring, moved a second-round pick for a few months of Brian Boyle. The Predators exposed James Neal and are assumed to have made a deal with Vegas just so they could protect Calle Jarnkrok.
A restricted free agent, Lindberg is under team control for two more years. The Rangers will be able to sign him very cheaply this summer. If they are able to keep him long-term, then great. If not, then down the road they’ll likely be able to move him for a nice return. When it comes to depth players, he is the total package. He is cheap, under team control, and is productive at an in-demand position. Should the Rangers lose him, life will go on. Finding a replacement will be tough, though; both now and in the future.