Should the Rangers Trade Rick Nash or Michael Grabner – or Both?

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Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Rangers are going to have a lot of decisions to make this trade deadline, which although I realize is a ways away, is still worth discussing given how some of their players on expiring contracts are playing. The two players in particular who I’m thinking of are of course Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, who have been excellent secondary scorers for the Blueshirts thus far this season. Both players have similar skillsets and similar output (at least at first glance) thus far, so I thought it would be interesting to delve a little bit deeper into what the Rangers might want to do with one or both of them.

Given this whole “rebuild on the fly business”, and given that the playoffs are anything but a given at this point, the Rangers should at least think about trading an expiring asset in return for something good come the end of winter.

Let’s start with the numbers, at least on a basic level. At five on five Rick Nash has four goals and five assists for a total of nine points, six of which are primary points (goals or primary assists). Grabner likewise has six goals and two assist for a total of eight points, with seven of them being primary points.

Just from this cursory look at the numbers, it seems that Grabner is the more valuable asset, but none of this takes into consideration the man advantage or penalty kill situations. While we certainly could get into them if we wanted to take a real deep dive, it’s tough to compare the two on that level given that Nash receives both PP and PK time, Grabner has a lot of empty net goals, and both of those kinds of situations are less about point output than they are creating/denying chances. Again, we could really dig down into the numbers and get into all of that, but for these purposes right now five on five play is the easiest way to compare apples to apples.

All of that scoring is great to know, but it’s also important to adjust for ice time, because as we know Nash and Grabner have significantly different roles on this team as far as who’s considered a more primary scoring threat. With a time on ice of 314.93 minutes compared to Grabner’s 288.05 minutes, Nash’s ice time is a decent amount higher than the speedy Austrian’s. When you divide up those numbers by the amount of games played (26 for both of them) you get 12.11 minutes on average per game of five on five ice time to 11.07 minutes of the same – just about a full minute more, and again, Nash gets time on the PP that Grabner doesn’t so his role on the team carries a higher profile, or at least a different quality, than Grabner’s.

In those minutes Nash has a points per 60 minutes of 1.71 and a primary points per 60 minutes of 1.14, while Grabner’s are 1.67 and 1.46 respectively. Now it’s important to note that it is still relative early in the season, so there’s plenty of time for one or both of this guys to go on a tear and/or cool off significantly, but right now it looks like Grabner is probably slightly more valuable than Nash in terms of points scoring – although his points per 60 is slightly lower his primary points rate is higher, meaning if you put both him and Nash on ice for the exact same amount of time it’s a bit more likely than Grabner gets it done than Nash does.

The game is more than just scoring of course, with a guy’s on-ice contributions going beyond putting the biscuit in the basket and extending to how well they help their teammates win, assists notwithstanding. For that we should consider each of their CF%s and xGF%s, which measure the team’s share of shot attempts and scoring chances, respectively, with each player on the ice. We should also look at each of those numbers raw and relative – the latter giving us how much better or worse each player is compared to his teammates’ average. In this regard Nash has a CF% of 47.27 and a xGF% of 46.62, while Grabner’s numbers are a 46.69 CF% and 48.59 xGF%.

It’s interesting that Nash would have a better CF% but a worse xGF% than Grabner, indicating that while the team takes more shots while he’s on ice compared to Grabner, the team takes better shots when Grabner is on ice compared to Nash. This is just conjecture, but it probably has to do with the fact that Nash is an elite puck protector and can help the team bring it into the zone and set up, even if what ends up coming of it all is a shot from the point, while Grabner’s offense tends to come on the rush, making it less likely the team gets a lot of shot attempts with him around but more likely that those shot attempts are on breakaways and thus more valuable overall.

The relative numbers are also interesting to look at, because they give us an idea of who’s really more valuable to the team – are they just putting up these raw CF%s and xGF%s because they happen to be on ice during those attempts and scoring chances, or are they actually the ones driving those events? For both players, the numbers aren’t great, but we’ll consider them anyways because evidence is evidence and you’ve got to take it into account. Nash has a relCF% of -0.98% and Grabner has a relCF% of 1.71%, meaning Nash is slightly closer to his teammates’ average than Grabner is, but both are underperforming relative to the team as a whole.

As far as relxGF% goes, Nash thus far has posted a relxGF% of -2.67 while Grabner has posted one of -0.03% – once again Nash seems better at putting his teammates in a position to get a shot off, but Grabner seems better at making those shots count. It’s an interesting discrepancy and one that certainly would become relevant in any trade talks – but we’ll get to that next.

Trading Nash would mean sending someone away who drives play regardless of quality, while trading Grabner would mean driving a guy who primarily gets really good scoring chances. This brings us to the age old debate of quality versus quantity – ideally you’d like both but if you’re more concerned with getting pucks to the net than getting breakaways you might consider trading Grabner instead of Nash. Similarly, if you want to see more rush based offense and less sustained pressure, trading Nash might be you’re best bet.

There are of course other considerations to be made, a lot of with have to do with perception. Rick Nash is a name brand player who went first overall, and Michael Grabner is a guy who has built his reputation as a very good, but inconsistent (at least on a year-to-year basis) depth guy. Other teams might value on of those more than the other just on its own, or because they want other teams to be quaking in their boots when each player is on the ice. By that I mean that putting Rick Nash on the ice likely creates a psychological condition where teams feel they¬†have to cover him, because he’s got such a stellar reputation, while Michael Grabner probably doesn’t cause the same effect.

This idea cuts both ways though – if other teams cover Nash more but he isn’t producing, your secondary scoring better be making it happen. On the flip side, Michael Grabner is that secondary scoring, and if teams are underrating him then maybe there’s a better chance he gets it done. Systems is another big consideration too, but as far as that goes I’m less knowledgable than someone like Dave, so I’ll leave that up to better minds as we get closer to the trade deadline.

Now, the big question is this – do you trade one or both of them? On that level it all depends on how much the Rangers see themselves as contenders, and how much emphasis they’re placing on each component of “rebuild on the fly”. If the Rangers think they’re still in it, and they emphasis the latter part of that phrase, then maybe Grabner is the one to go, provided the deal on the table is better than the one for Nash. If they’re really dead set on rebuilding, and they see this year as a lost cause come spring time, then maybe trading both is the move. It’s a tough calculus to consider for any GM, and as always we’re just going to have to trust the process. Whether that trust is well-founded I’ll leave for you to decide, but at least now you’ve got the facts.