By Sean Hartnett
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News broke not long after the Rangers’ 3-1 road defeat to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night that Michael Grabner was packing his bags for a new home. Well kind of. To the surprise of many fans, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton found an atypical trading partner in the rival Devils.
A historic, first-ever trade between the clubs shipped Grabner across the Hudson to New Jersey for 20-year-old defenseman Igor Rykov and a 2018 second-round draft pick. Grabner’s lightning speed, eye for goals and penalty-killing prowess will be a major boost to the Devils’ Stanley Cup hopes. Through 59 games, Grabner has scored 25 goals. He is on pace to finish the current campaign with 34 goals.
In a season when the perennially playoff-bound Rangers and the recently playoff-starved Devils have switched roles, it is now the Rangers who are operating as trade deadline sellers. The Grabner deal was the next domino to fall after the Rangers dealt veteran defenseman Nick Holden to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday for 24-year-old defenseman Rob O’Gara and a 2018 third-round pick.
O’Gara, Rykov, picks and the assets gained from the impending departure of Rick Nash will go toward the Rangers’ plan of restocking their pool of youth and rebuilding efforts.
Rykov is skating in his third season for SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL alongside Rangers top goaltending prospect Igor Shesterkin. Through 51 games this season, Rykov has collected two goals and 12 assists. He put in standout performances in helping SKA capture the 2017 Gagarin Cup. Rykov was selected as KHL rookie of the week in the Gagarin Cup quarterfinals and Gagarin Cup Finals.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Rykov possesses NHL-ready size – but there’s a lot to like about his wide-ranging skillset. He packs a heavy shot, is an adept puck handler and projects toward becoming a dependable two-way defenseman thanks to his intelligence on both ends of the rink.
Grabner and Nash were held out of Thursday’s game as a precaution. It appears that the completion of a deal that sends Nash to a new address shouldn’t be too far behind. Following the Grabner deal, the Rangers now possess eight picks in the 2018 draft. This includes five picks in the first three rounds.
As for the game itself, the slumping Rangers slipped to a fifth consecutive loss. The current Rangers are very much a makeshift group, bereft of experience and unable to summon anything resembling a solid 60 minutes.
What fans are witnessing right now is a young team that is experiencing growing pains. Back in September, the Rangers didn’t expect to be handing healthy NHL minutes to the likes of Neal Pionk, Vinni Lettieri, John Gilmour and a host of other youngsters in late February. Mistakes are inevitable when a team is forced to lean on inexperienced youth – but all the lessons learned will pay off for the Rangers once these new faces reach maturity.
O’Gara’s positioning cost the Rangers early in the contest, allowing Tomas Plekanec to score the game’s opening goal. While he did not have the best debut, the subpar performance will soon be forgotten if O’Gara can make a positive impression in the season’s final months.
The Rangers were disjointed and possession-deficient for the first two periods before finding their offensive legs in the third period. The Blueshirts were outshot 32-14 combined in the first two periods but gained an 18-9 shooting advantage in the third period. Alexandar Georgiev excelled between the pipes for the Rangers in his NHL debut, recording 38 saves on 40 shots. The 22-year-old netminder’s heroics kept the game from ending with a lopsided score, as the Canadiens brought an energy and execution level that the Rangers could not match.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey