Why the New York Rangers should acquire a top-six forward
The New York Rangers need to make the playoffs this season. Mika Zibanejad has said it outright, others have hinted at it, fans have demanded it. It’s time to get back into the playoffs. In David Quinn and Jeff Gorton’s final year with the team, New York dealt with some ….. unique ….. obstacles such as Zibanejad being a ghost for the first half of the season, Artemi Panarin missing time due to a conflict with the Russian government, and Igor Shesterkin getting injured. Any time you have Keith Kinkaid playing valuable games, you’re in trouble. If last year’s experiences taught us anything, it’s that the Rangers should acquire a top six forward to address potential depth issues.
This season does bring new opportunities and a new roster. New York welcomes Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and others into the fold. But gone is Pavel Buchnevich. And suddenly the Rangers are counting on Alexis Lafreniere (getting the first look) or Chris Kreider to play right wing. Flushed with cap space and assets, it’s time for the Rangers to make a move.
Currently, the Rangers opening night lineup projects to be:
This projected lineup features solid depth, but if Lafreniere struggles in his new position, suddenly the lineup shifts altogether and becomes:
Alexis Lafreniere-Mika Zibanejad-Kaapo Kakko
Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Vitali Kravtsov
Chris Kreider-Filip Chytil-Barclay Goodrow
Sammy Blais-Kevin Rooney-Ryan Reaves
At that point, the Rangers would be relying on Vitali Kravtsov to perform at a top-six level in his rookie season, in addition to Kaapo Kakko making the jump from scoring 17 points to being a first line winger.
Let me be totally clear here, I do believe Kakko and Kravtsov have that in them. But relying on them means putting pressure on them, and putting pressure on them increases the chances they aren’t up to the task. To develop Kakko and Kravtsov properly, it’s best for the Rangers to let the pair force themselves into their respective top six roles.
Now, if there were an injury in the original lineup’s top-six, we would be faced with the same situation. Kakko on the top line, Kravtsov as the second line’s right winger. Besides the pressure and forced new roles, this is a team trying to make the playoffs. Counting on point production from the duo in a playoff race is a high ask that could easily come back to bite the Rangers.
New York already has a ton of forward depth, but I argue the Rangers do not have a top of top-six depth. It’s always valuable to add top-six wingers when you can, and the Rangers have the cap space (and then some) and assets (and then some) to do it.
On October 4, 2014, the New York Islanders acquire Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk in separate trades. Those deals were made because the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins were in cap turmoil, while the Islanders had tons of cap room to spare.
Following this model, the Rangers can target teams such as these:
A team that continues to stand out to me is the Vegas Golden Knights. Reilly Smith (our old friend Brendan’s brother) is on the final year of his contract, and is a reliable scorer with decent metrics. He would fit into the top-six seamlessly, and with his expiring contract, would be easy to shed if Kakko and Kravtsov play to the level where they are forcing the Rangers’ hands to promote them into bigger roles.
Another option the Rangers could explore to acquire a top six forward is Nino Niederreiter of the Carolina Hurricanes. Another pending UFA on a team with a flux of forwards and very limited cap space, Niederreiter would be a great plug and play option for the top-six.
Overall, the idea is simple. Rather than taking the risk in a playoff season of making Kakko, Lafreniere, and Kravtsov play in roles they’re either unfamiliar with or potentially not ready for, the Rangers would be better served acquiring a stop-gap top-six winger, plugging them into the lineup while moving Kreider to the third line. This improves the team’s overall forward depth and makes for a more potent lineup. This also lets the kids prove that they deserve to move up in the lineup.
The idea is inexpensive, helps develop the youth at a more reasonable pace, and helps the team with the goal of making the playoffs. With the amount of cap space the Rangers have, a move might be up their sleeves as well. Let’s see what happens.