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New York Rangers have a dilemma with Michael Grabner and Las Vegas Golden Knights

Michael Grabner, No. 40 (NHLI/Getty Images)

Michael Grabner, No. 40 (NHLI/Getty Images)

On Monday, the NHL named New York Rangers’ speedster Michael Grabner the first star of the week ending on January 8.  Last Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, Grabner recorded two goals and an assist in a 5-2 victory in Philadelphia.  His first goal was the game-winner, and his second goal of the night was an empty-netter to put the nail in the coffin.

A statistical correction for Saturday night’s thrilling comeback against the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets credited Grabner with a hat trick, the fourth of his career, and second this season.  He added an assist on Oscar Lindberg’s first goal of the season to put the Rangers on the board.  His first goal of the night was a snipe glove-side on Curtis McElhinney after skating up the left wing.  His second goal came from an Adam Clendening shot that redirected off his skate, fooling McElhinney.  But Grabner’s third goal was the most spectacular as he blocked a pass across the point in the Rangers’ zone.  He moved up the ice with great speed as he normally does, breaking in all alone and roofing the puck on a backhand in tight with just 16.5 seconds remaining on the clock.  That goal would be the game-deciding score.

Grabner is having a career-year this season as he is fitting quite nicely under Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault’s system based on speed.  So far, three of his 19 goals are game-winners and one of his seven assists has come while short-handed.  The 29-year old Austrian-native is now tied for sixth place in goals so far this season.  Grabner’s production has come with limited minutes, averaging just 13:36 time on ice per game.  Despite the limited time, Michael Grabner’s next point will be the 200th of his career.

This year, we are seeing a significant improvement in Grabner’s ability to shoot the puck and finish on breakaways, a return to some of the success he had in his first two seasons with the New York Islanders.  Grabner’s efforts on Saturday helped the Rangers steal two important points before the squad headed into its much-needed “bye week.”  With Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad, and Pavel Buchnevich out of the Rangers’ lineup, the next few days’ rest will help them to return to the lineup, missing fewer games than if it was a normal scheduled week.  The Blueshirts end the hiatus on Friday evening hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs for one of six “Heritage” nights this season, celebrating the Rangers’ 90th Anniversary season.

Time to bring Grabner back down to Earth: there are two stark realities surrounding Michael Grabner.  First, and short-sighted here, Grabner has been somewhat inconsistent this season despite posting 26 points in 41 contests.  While Grabner has several multi-point nights, including two that led to his being named first star of the week, he has gone several games in a row without a single point.

Nevertheless, the second dilemma arises if one believes Grabner will continue to produce at or close to this rate for the next few seasons.  Even if he does not reach the level of production he will have reached by the end of this season, Grabner is a cheap player with high reward – his speed game takes a back seat to no one; he kills off penalties as good as anyone; and he is still only 29-years old and serviceable for a few more years.  This makes him a prime target for the NHL’s 31st team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The Las Vegas expansion draft is five months from now.  Such implications are drastic in terms of Michael Grabner’s future as a New York Ranger. As a result of several no-move and no-trade clauses present in several contracts, Rangers’ General Manager Jeff Gorton will have some very difficult decisions to make, and possibly a few personnel changes will take place.

Starting in goal, Henrik Lundqvist must be protected as per his contract.  Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Captain Ryan McDonagh have similar contract clauses that necessitate their being protected.  As far as forwards are concerned, the same goes for Rick Nash.  The following remaining players are most likely going to be protected: Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, JT Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and Derek Stepan (Brady Skjei, Jimmy Vesey, and Pavel Buchnevich are exempt from the expansion draft, so we don’t have to worry about them).  Who gets sacrificed to keep Grabner, who is locked up just one more season at a cheap cap hit?  Keep in mind, if Grabner has another great season next year, he will command way more on his next contract.  This means a core Ranger will have been sacrificed to cause more headaches for Gorton.

Does this mean Grabner is as good as gone?  Not if one of several options are executed.  The first option is to do nothing, and take a gamble that Las Vegas won’t choose an unprotected Michael Grabner.  But as we all know – when it comes to Vegas, the house always wins.  Forget that option.

Another option includes trading any one of the aforementioned forwards, save Rick Nash.  Hypothetically, if we are all intent on keeping Grabner, trading Derek Stepan makes the most sense.

Wait – Derek Stepan?!  Number 21?  The Rangers’ 2008 51st-pick overall?  The same Stepan who scored a hat trick in his NHL debut?  The same Stepan who plays a terrific two-way game?  The same Stepan who has three game-winning goals in the postseason; who has been instrumental in the Rangers’ recent playoff success and is only 26-years old?! 

Yes – I’m talking about that Derek Stepan.  “Step” has four more seasons left on his contract entailing a cap hit of $6.5 million per season (as per CapFriendly.com).  But here’s the kicker: Stepan’s contract also features a no-trade clause that kicks in after this season.  Thus, if he is not being traded by the deadline then, Gorton is stuck with yet another debilitating contract made by Glen Sather.  But, keep in mind, other GMs know Gorton would be unloading this contract to save cap room, avoid another immovable contract, and lastly, for the purpose of this little exercise, to protect Michael Grabner.  Thus, a potential trade partner will not likely give up what might be seen as a “fair” return.  Therefore, the Rangers may get the short end of the stick by dealing Stepan to keep Grabner.  Will the shuffling of lines yet again be worth it just to keep Grabner?

Who else can be traded to keep Grabner?  Mats Zuccarello could be a fan-favorite for any city he plays for.   JT Miller is back in Vigneault’s doghouse, despite being on pace for a career high in points.  Kreider could probably get a good return on his current value as well.  I’m sure Rangers fans reading this right now are ready to rip their hair out of their heads, curse me out, or both.  But this is the tough reality that expansion brings.  I did not even mention Nick Holden until just now, as I’m sure many Ranger fans would love to keep him around as well.  Sorry, he’s as good as gone.

A couple more options arise, but they are more complicated and require some smooth-talking on Jeff Gorton’s part.  Gorton could bargain with Golden Knights’ GM, George McPhee, and offer him picks and prospects perhaps in exchange for McPhee’s promise not to take Grabner.  In the alternative and probably much harder to pull-off, Gorton could convince those with no-trade or no-move clauses to waive said clauses, naming Las Vegas as a potential destination.  But why would any one of them agree to be traded, uprooting their families and their lifestyle in New York?

The final option, of which I deem the “Doomsday Option” (and I advise highly against this one) would be to buyout Dan Girardi’s contract, leaving him a free agent, and Grabner protected.  Buyouts are not without penalties.  According to CapFriendly.com, a buyout of Dan Girardi’s $5.5 million cap hit will cost the Rangers about $2.6 million next season towards the salary cap, about $3.6 million the next two seasons, and $1.11 million for the remaining three seasons.  So while the Rangers will still be saving cash, both organizationally, and towards the cap, the logistics of the scenario are such that the Rangers are paying Girardi to play elsewhere, and that counts towards the Rangers’ own salary cap for six years after his departure.  Is it really worth it when the salary cap is hard enough to comply with?

As if general managers don’t have enough issues to face year-to-year in planning for the future between the NHL Entry Draft, free agency, and the salary cap, the Last Vegas expansion draft is causing even more headaches for them.  Now, this isn’t a reason to abandon NHL expansion to profitable markets.  It sure is enough to bring ire to the hearts of the die-hards in every NHL city.  But it’s important to remember that the NHL is a business just like any other in the sense that the bottom-line matters.  And if a business isn’t growing and improving, changing with the times, it’s not going to last.  Fans will be upset to see their favorite players go.  But in a year from now, those casualties to the Vegas expansion will be long-forgotten.  It’s nothing personal, just business.  This is New York we’re talking about after all, isn’t it?

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for DoubleGSports.com. He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.
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