By Sean Hartnett
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Derick Brassard was a brother to teammates and a playoff hero whose exploits will never be forgotten by the Madison Square Garden faithful. His long-term future with the Rangers appeared bright when he signed a five-year, $25 million extension with limited no-trade protection in the summer of 2014.
Yet, few players are truly secure and situations can change quickly. The Rangers fell well short of expectations this past spring. Eliminated in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, changes were inevitable.
After signing a slew of role players, general manager Jeff Gorton waited patiently to swing the right kind of trade to alter the Rangers’ core. The Blueshirts accomplished much by sending Brassard and a 2018 seventh-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 second-round draft pick on Monday afternoon.
Zibanejad, 23, is an accomplished two-way center who offers similar production and will be six years younger than Brassard when the Rangers open the 2016-17 regular season at home against the rival Islanders on Oct. 13. The Penguins exposed the Rangers as a team that desperately needed an influx of speed, a stronger presence in the neutral and defensive zones and an upgrade to a faltering penalty kill.
Brassard does a lot of things well in the offensive zone and was typically productive during the 2016 playoffs, collecting four points in five games. Production was never the problem. Brassard needed to offer more when the puck wasn’t on his stick and needed to become tougher to play against in the defensive end.
Zibanejad addresses plenty of needs — he’s better defensively and is equipped to handle tougher matchups. He’s also more consistent at the faceoff dot, can kill penalties and satisfies the Rangers’ need another for a right-handed shooter.
“For us, this is a younger player that’s coming off two 20-goal seasons, that we think is heading to the prime of his career,” Gorton said during Monday’s conference call. “And the ability to get a younger player, to get a guy that’s fast, big, plays real well in his own zone, can do a lot of things for us, that’s the exciting piece.
“I think the potential is there for more upside,” he continued. “He’s just scratching the surface at age 23. There’s not a lot of guys that have done what he’s done as far as score 20 before that age. You look at the way the game’s played. You look at some of the things — he kills penalties, he’s really emerged on the draws. I think since he’s come in he’s gotten better every year.”
All of Gorton’s moves this summer have been designed to improve the Rangers’ penalty kill, which dipped to 26th overall last season at 78.2 percent.
“There’s no secret, right, that our penalty kill was not good,” Gorton said. “Some of the moves we’ve made, if not all of them, have some part in that. We have to be better there. When we got a guy like (Michael) Grabner, or whether it’s (Nathan) Gerbe, or add (Josh) Jooris, or (Nick) Holden or whomever, and now Zibanejad, yeah, that’s a significant part of the game now. And for us to be in the top of the league is important. That’s something we strive for and it didn’t happen this year. I think it says so in all the moves we’ve made.”
Perhaps as important, the trade opens up $2.375 million in cap space for the Rangers. That room will help facilitate new deals for restricted free agents Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, while also possibly opening up avenues for Gorton to explore further trades. When pressed repeatedly about the chances of other deals, he did not take the bait.
“The fact that we have salary-cap space is good,” Gorton said. “We’ll look at everything now. But even if I had a move, I promise I wouldn’t tell (the media.)”
It’s important to keep in mind the Rangers aren’t a finished product. Everyone knew at some point Gorton would shake up the core. The added cap space gives Gorton and the Rangers flexibility to work with and more deals could be forthcoming as the offseason rolls on.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey