Vo. 1 of the trade deadline preview: who is next on the Rangers' first line carousel?

In Vol. 1 of the Rangers' trade deadline preview, we look at options for Chris Drury to put next to Chris Kreider and Mike Zibanejad.

Rangers General Manager Chris Drury
Rangers General Manager Chris Drury / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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The 2024 NHL trade deadline is still over a month away, but Rangers fans have been thinking about it since November. This year, the theme has been former Rangers, with Mats Zuccarello, Vladimir Tarasenko and Frank Vatrano being thrown around as guys that #RangersTwitter think Chris Drury should check in on. While those are excellent options, some are more feasible than others. Here in Vol. 1 of my trade deadline preview, we with look at top-line options for the Rangers at the deadline and how they might help this team make a Stanley Cup run.

Rangers’ Current Roster:

Over the past month plus, the Rangers' lack of scoring punch has started to show up. This is in part due to the Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko injuries, but also because Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and [insert right wing here] have failed to generate much offense at even strength. Kakko’s recent return is going to be interesting to watch, as his defense and puck possession ability are certainly an upgrade over Blake Wheeler. As for Chytil, it is unknown whether or not he will be able to return this season and the Rangers cannot count on him. With that in mind, these would be the projected lines if everyone (except Chytil) is healthy come deadline day:

Forward Line:

Kreider – Zibanejad – Kakko
Panarin - Trocheck - Lafreniere
Cuylle - Bonino - Wheeler
Brodzinski - Goodrow - Vesey

Defensive Pairing:

Lindgren – Fox
Miller - Trouba
Gustafsson - Schneider

Scratches:

Zac Jones (D), Pitlick (F)

Chris Drury currently has $4.437M in cap space to work with since Chytil is on the LTIR, but that evaporates quickly if he does return.  If Chytil is indeed out for the remainder of the season, the need to acquire another player with scoring upside becomes that much more important. If Chytil does return, then Barclay Goodrow (and his lone goal) would have to be attached to some picks and shipped out in order for the team to have any cap flexibility. Now, let’s get to the fun stuff.

The Candidates:

Jake Guentzel: 19-27-46P in 42G, 1 yr, $6M remaining

Jake Guentzel is the great mystery of this trade deadline. The Penguins have reportedly been entertaining the idea of trading their star winger, who is a pending unrestricted free agent. Rangers fans don’t need an in-depth introduction to Guentzel, a player who had eight goals in seven playoff games against New York during the 2022 first round series.

The cost of acquiring Guentzel would be pretty steep. A first round pick is guaranteed as well as a good young player/prospect. The Rangers would also require that Pittsburgh retain as much salary as possible. Regardless, acquiring Guentzel would give the Rangers two elite offensive lines…and I’m just going to stop myself there before I become too hopeful. Just keep an eye out for the “Rangers have kicked the tires on Guentzel” headline.

Mats Zuccarello: 8-27-35 in 35G, 3 yr, $14.25M remaining

On the topic of hopeful, Mats Zuccarello might be an even more dangerous consideration. If Zuc returned to the Rangers, MSG would have to reinforce its foundation as fans’ cheers might register on the Richter Scale. Add in the fact that he would be reunited with Mika and Kreider, and this trade becomes even more romantic. Beyond the storylines, Zuc’s passing ability, pesky style play, and veteran leadership would be welcome additions to this team, potentially bolstering a first line that has struggled to produce at 5-on-5 this year.

The cost and availability of Zuccarello is hard to gauge given his age and contract situation. However, considering that Minnesota is going nowhere fast, they may be inclined to offload some salary to continue getting younger. A first round pick and a decent prospect could be enough to get the job done. In the end though, this may as well be a pipe dream.

Frank Vatrano: 21-12-33P in 44G, 2 yr, $3.65M remaining

Another fan favorite that got away, Vatrano was originally acquired by the Rangers at the 2022 deadline. Following the trade, he played mostly with Mika and Kreider and seemed to gel well with them, sporting a line of 13-13-26P in 42 games between the regular season and playoffs. This time, that trade would likely cost a little bit more than fourth rounder it did then. Vatrano has upped his production in Anaheim, using his ability (and willingness) to shoot the puck to pot 21 goals so far this season, three short of his career high.

In terms of price, Vatrano would likely necessitate a first rounder given that he is not just a rental and is peaking in terms of his point production. Anaheim would be best served to capitalize on his value now, as it may never be higher. This may change though depending on Anaheim’s plans for contention next season.

Vladimir Tarasenko: 11-18-29 in 38G, 1 yr, $5M remaining

Vladimir Tarasenko has the chance to join the Tyler Motte Club of being traded to the Rangers in back-to-back seasons. Beyond wish casting, Tarasenko is a practical fit in New York. He has a history as an elite goal-scorer and would fit in well on a top line that needs some more talent. He fit it well with the Rangers last year after being traded from St. Louis, putting up 11 goals and 25 points in 38 games on Broadway between the regular season and playoffs.

With the Senators dwelling near the bottom of the league and Tarasenko on a one-year deal, he should be on the market. While he has a no-trade clause, he would likely waive it for a chance to contend. This would necessitate the Senators retaining some salary, but may not require a first-rounder. The Rangers do have their second-rounder this year and perhaps that combined with another later-round pick is enough to pry him away from Ottawa.

Daniel Sprong: 11-18-29 in 45G, 1 yr, $2M remaining

Daniel Sprong has had an interesting career, bouncing around to five different teams since 2015. Last year, he had 21 goals and 46 points in just 66 games with the Kraken, showcasing the offensive firepower that he had teased as a prospect. Now in Detroit, Sprong has shown that last season was no fluke. He boasts a dangerous shot and a silky set of hands, while playing mostly in Detroit’s bottom six. 21 of his 27 points at even strength, while also putting up 2G and 5A on the powerplay. The thoughts here are:

  1. Sprong would cost the least to acquire of any player discussed here while also having the cheapest contract.

2. If he can produce 21 even strength points in 12 min/game with the bottom six, he could be even more dangerous playing with top-line talent.

On the flip side, this trade is contingent on Detroit falling out of the playoff race. As of now, they have 51 points and sit in the second wildcard spot in the East.

My Take:

I am of the belief that the Rangers need to add another scoring wing who can complement Mika and Kreider. Kakko may be an upgrade over Wheeler, but the Rangers should strive to add someone a bit more dynamic. With that in mind, Vladimir Tarasenko and Frank Vatrano stand out as the two most likely options. The Rangers have not made a trade with the Penguins since 2013, Zuccarello’s longer-term deal makes it less likely Minnesota feels the need to move him, and the Wings will likely not be sellers.

Personally, I think Vatrano would be perfect for what the Rangers need right now. He is not only a scorer, but a feisty player that is not afraid mix it up come playoff time. At $3.65M for this year and next, he is relatively cheap given his scoring potential and his contract expires before Lafreniere, Cuylle, and Miller all become RFAs in 2025. However, this should not be Drury’s only move, and in Vol. 2 we will explore the Rangers’ options for the bottom six.