Fourth-Line Forward Will Be Missed, But Situation Would Be Far Worse Had Golden Knights Taken Someone Else

By Sean Hartnett
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Although Oscar Lindberg’s stock is on the rise, the Rangers lucked out on Wednesday night when the Vegas Golden Knights drafted the most replaceable of the foursome of Lindberg, Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner and Antti Raanta.

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It would have been difficult for the Rangers to replace Grabner, who scored 27 goals in his first season with the Blueshirts. The 29-year-old winger offers electric speed, strong penalty killing, and an ability to pressure opponents into mistakes.

Losing Fast would have taken away one of Vigneault’s most trusted forwards. The hard-working 25-year-old right wing has shown he can fill roles from the second line down and excels at doing all the unheralded, team-first things that raise the play of linemates.

Like Grabner, Fast is an important piece on the penalty kill and frequently pressures opponents into committing turnovers. The Swede excels at cutting off passing lanes and plays heads-up hockey on both ends of the ice. Fast was voted by his teammates as the Players’ Player Award recipient in consecutive seasons.

By retaining Raanta, the Rangers have an experienced backup netminder who is capable of playing like a No. 1 goaltender when 35-year-old franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist is unavailable or needs a rest during what is often a marathon regular season.

Out of the four players Vegas could have conceivably selected from the Blueshirts, Raanta has the highest trade value because he’s capable of immediately being another franchise’s starter. Since joining the Rangers prior to the 2015-16 season, the Finn has posted outstanding regular season numbers — a 27-14-14 record, a .921 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average. Multiple teams expressed interest in trading for Raanta before the expansion draft. His trade value only increases after Marc-Andre Fleury, Jean-Francois Berube and Calvin Pickard were selected by the Golden Knights.

From the Rangers’ perspective, it wouldn’t have made sense to hash out a deal with Vegas to allow the Blueshirts to retain Lindberg. He’s a fine player who demonstrated a good amount of growth in the playoffs, but he’s a bottom-six center and that’s role that the Rangers should have no problem replacing this offseason.

Sam Gagner

Blue Jackets forward Sam Gagner tries to get around the Penguins’ Matt Cullen during the first period of Game 2 of the teams’ first-round playoff series on April 14, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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For example, Sam Gagner has positioned himself for a nice raise above the $650,000 he earned last season with Columbus. The 27-year-old recorded 50 points in 81 games for Columbus and is going to be a hot commodity in free agency if the Blue Jackets are unable to re-sign him before July 1.

Former Ranger Brian Boyle would also be a solid candidate to fill the void left by Lindberg’s absence, though term could be a driving factor in where the 32-year-old center ends up next. In a Tuesday appearance on Leafs Lunch on TSN Radio 1050 in Toronto, Boyle said that the length of his next contract is “a big thing” in where he ends up. Boyle excelled in a fourth-line role during his final season with the Rangers under Alain Vigneault, helping the Blueshirts to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. The 6-foot-6 center loved his time in New York.

Boyle is going to be attractive to several teams because of his fine playoff performances with the Maple Leafs and record of being a continual big-game performer over the years. Boyle served as a glue player for Toronto. Head coach Mike Babcock praised his leadership on the ice, on the bench, and in the dressing room. After leaving the Rangers, Boyle’s next contract was a three-year deal at $2 million in annual-average value that brought him to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s hard at this point to gauge whether a Broadway reunion is a realistic possibility.

Derek Ryan is another interesting option. The 30-year-old won 55 percent of faceoffs last season for the Carolina Hurricanes and recorded 29 points in 67 games. Ryan was a named a Masterton Trophy finalist after taking a unique route to the NHL. He went undrafted, playing professional hockey in Hungary, Austria and Sweden. He has since proven he belongs in the NHL.

It’s possible that J.T. Miller could make the move back to center, though his best work has been on the wing. Cristoval “Boo” Nieves could get a long look in training camp. Nieves skated in 40 games for AHL Hartford last season, recording 18 points. The former University of Michigan product is trending in the direction of being NHL-ready and impressed in his Nov. 15 debut in Vancouver. He’s got the right package of speed and size.

Vinni Lettieri is short on professional experience, but he earned high marks for his strong defensive play and faceoff-winning prowess during his four years at the University of Minnesota. Lettieri’s production improved each year and he skated for nine games for AHL Hartford after signing with the Rangers on March 27.

So, there’s no shortage of options to fill the Lindberg void. Though his absence will hurt Rangers on some levels, losing one of Fast, Grabner or Raanta would have hurt a lot more.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey