By Sean Hartnett
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When the Rangers announced their intentions to rebuild in early February, it was clear that the organization would not be undertaking a slight retooling. This wasn’t just going to be about trading off the expiring contracts of over-30 players in the search for youth, speed and early-round draft picks.
There was always the chance that franchise-altering decisions would be made. After Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline passed, the Rangers completed a jaw-dropping deal that sent captain Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Stanley Cup-chasing Tampa Bay Lightning.
In return, the Rangers received 25-year-old center Vladislav Namestnikov, 20-year-old defenseman Libor Hajek, 19-year-old center Brett Howden, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 conditional first-round pick.
Namestnikov has recorded 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists) through 62 games this season. At 6-foot-2, Howden is known for his strength, two-way smarts and playmaking upside. Hajek, also 6-foot-2, is regarded as a promising shutdown defenseman with good mobility.
“It hit on a lot of things that we wanted to accomplish as far as acquiring some high picks and getting some young players that we’ve really liked for a while,” general manager Jeff Gorton said. “The ability to get Howden and Hajek and then get the picks, (and) Namestnikov is a player we’ve liked for a while.”
Here is a breakdown of the conditional pick conditions:
• If Tampa Bay does not win the Stanley Cup in either of 2018 or 2019, the Rangers would receive the Lightning’s own second-round pick in the 2019 draft.
• If Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Rangers would get the Lightning’s own first-round pick in the 2019 draft rather than their second-round pick. However, if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2018 and their own first-round selection in the 2019 draft is a top-10 pick, Tampa Bay would have the option to give the Rangers its own first-round pick in either the 2019 or 2020 drafts. The Lightning would have until 5 p.m. Eastern the day after the NHL draft lottery to let the Rangers and NHL Central Registry know which year’s draft pick they’re giving up.
• If Tampa Bay does not win the 2018 Stanley Cup but wins the 2019 Stanley Cup, the Rangers would receive the Lightning’s own first-round pick in 2019 in lieu of their own second-round pick that year.
At this moment, the rapid and significant changes to the Rangers’ direction and overhauled roster make it difficult to gauge how long the Blueshirts will be engaged in rebuild mode. Some teams, such as the rival Devils, have perfected the quick rebuild, while others appear mired in extended rebuilding efforts.
What is clear is that Gorton is putting his faith in youth and the yields of a deep pool of draft picks. Since Henrik Lundqvist’s 2005-06 rookie campaign until this season, the Rangers have trended toward the top of the Eastern Conference and aggressively added expensive, big-name players through free agency and trade deadline megadeals.
Nowadays, the Rangers are readily admitting that their strategy needed a rethink. It’s clear that a win-now mindset can only last so long. The Rangers’ eyes are clearly focused on new faces and the future.
Gorton previously turned the expiring contracts of Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden into a slew of younger players and an assortment of draft picks.
By dealing away the trio, the Rangers acquired a 2018 first-round pick, a 2018 second-round pick, a 2018 third-round pick, a 2019 seventh-round pick, Ryan Spooner, Ryan Lindgren, Igor Rykov and Matt Belesky.
Spooner produced two assists in his debut on against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.
“I thought he had a good game,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “I tried to pace him a bit there considering everything that happened today and the first two periods. In the third, I got to nine forwards and three lines, and I thought he made some real good plays. It was a good start for him.”
The Rangers also traded 22-year-old AHL defenseman Ryan Graves to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for 23-year-old AHL defenseman Chris Bigras on Monday. Bigras has appeared in 46 career NHL games, collecting one goal and three assists.
“Bigras is a player that we’ve liked for a while going back to the (2013) draft,” Gorton said. “I think you see a lot of these trades now where maybe these guys are in an organization for a while and they’re hoping for a better opportunity. I think that’s where we got with Ryan Graves, and I think that’s where they were with Bigras. We’re able to find two players maybe in the same kind of background and give them a fresh start. We’ll see where it goes. We do like him as a player, and we’ve liked him for a while. Maybe he gets an opportunity. We’ll see.”
In total, the Rangers have added six additional draft picks to their draft war chest. Gorton will have options at the draft floor.
“We’re trying to get a certain age level and guys that fit in with what we’re doing, but we’ll look at different positions and see what’s available,” Gorton said. “I’m sure when you have three first-round picks and you’re the draft floor, opportunity will be there.”
It appears that the intrigue is just beginning for the Rangers. A dramatic trade deadline shakeup could be the precursor for more impact moves to come at the 2018 draft. Hold on to your hats.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey