By Sean Hartnett
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On Monday afternoon, the Rangers announced that winger Jesper Fast will miss five months after undergoing hip surgery. The 25-year-old right wing underwent a successful labral repair of his left hip at the Hospital for Special Surgery and is projected to be sidelined until November.
Fast is expected to miss the early weeks of the 2017-18 season, and Rangers fans should hope that this will factor into the thought process of Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee. The Rangers will have to submit their list of protected players for the expansion draft to the NHL’s Central Registry and the NHLPA by 5 p.m. Eastern time on June 17. Selecting Fast arguably offers the best long-term value for Vegas compared to veteran winger Michael Grabner, bottom-six center Oscar Lindberg, backup goaltender Antti Raanta or depth defensemen Nick Holden and Kevin Klein.
There is going to be plenty of quality goaltenders and top-four defensemen available for McPhee to choose from. If McPhee wants a speed-burner and scoring punch, he will target Grabner. The 29-year-old scored 27 goals in his first season with the Blueshirts, and his lightning speed causes opponents to back off. Should McPhee’s desire be to round out his roster with a center whose stock is on the rise, 25-year-old Lindberg fits the bill after a fine showing during the 2017 playoffs and success for Gold medal-winning Sweden at the 2017 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships.
But Fast seems to offer the most value to the Golden Knights, and I don’t think him missing a few months will scare off McPhee if he views Fast as a flexible winger who can slide up and down Gerard Gallant’s lineup. Fast has proven to be reliable in a number of roles throughout his four years with the Rangers. I’ve often referred to him as “Mr. Fix-It” because he’s so good at fitting in on any line and doing all the unselfish things that benefit his linemates.
It starts with a commitment to doing all the little things right. Fast has an excellent understanding of positional sense and has a motor that doesn’t quit. He excels at pressuring opponents into turnovers and cutting off passing lanes. If you watch closely, you’ll notice how good Fast is at making plays along the wall to help the Rangers escape the defensive end. He’s a real heads-up forward, and Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is a keen admirer of his team-first qualities.
“There’s no doubt he’s a big part of our penalty killing and a guy that we can slot from the fourth line to the top line, depending on who we’re playing,” Vigneault said in March.
“He’s a real dedicated young man that competes every shift that he’s on the ice,” Vigneault added in April. “You guys have seen him the last couple of years. He has a great team-first attitude. That’s what you want in a teammate, and that’s what you want as a coach in a player.”
At season’s end, Fast was voted by his teammates as the Players’ Player Award recipient for the second consecutive season. The energetic Swede finished the 2016-17 regular season with 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 68 games and recorded six points in 12 playoff games.
As the Rangers’ roster currently stands, the club must protect goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, winger Rick Nash and defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal due to the players’ no-movement clauses. The deadline for teams to request for players to waive their no-movement rights for purposes of the expansion draft is 5 p.m. Eastern on Monday.
The expansion draft will be conducted from June 18-20, with the selections to be announced at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas during the June 21 NHL Awards. If there are no major changes to the Rangers’ roster prior to the expansion draft process, it would make the most sense for the club to employ a 7-3-1 (seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender) protection format.
This would mean Lundqvist, Nash, Girardi and Staal are automatically protected. Captain Ryan McDonagh would be the third protected defenseman, and alternate captain Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes are the six most likely forwards to be protected. That would leave Fast and Grabner exposed.
Though Grabner has more offensive shine to his game and game-changing speed, Fast is the more consistent forward on a game-by-game basis. If Fast ends up in Vegas, the Golden Knights will have the opportunity to offer him increased minutes to show there’s more to his offensive game, and the Rangers will lose a valuable glue player.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey