As 12:00pm Eastern drew closer, there was plenty of anticipation from Ranger fans expecting today to be the day that Rangers GM Chris Drury made a move to complete his offseason makeover of the roster. Six hours later and the sum of the day was four free agent signings headlined by the signing of third pair defenseman Patrik Nemeth.
No Jack Eichel trade. No Ryan Strome trade. Not even a trade of backup netminder Alexandar Georgiev, on a day that saw seventeen netminders change teams via free agency and trades.
Per Larry Brooks in the New York Post, the Rangers were in early on center Phillip Danault but pulled out after the bidding got too high, and were continuing to look at bottom six forward Nick Ritchie, who went unqualified by Boston.
The Nick Ritchie part of the story makes sense of course, after all he fits into Drury's seemingly singular focus on adding size and physicality to the Rangers line-up as evidenced in the moves he's made and the players selected in last week's draft.
As for the interest in Danault, there's one thing that doesn't quite add up. Danault ultimately signed on with the Kings for a six year deal with an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $5.5M. It was a substantial commitment for a defensive minded pivot who was coming off a three year deal worth a little less than $3.1M annually.
What doesn't make sense, is that it was widely reported that Danault had turned down a six year deal worth $5M annually from the Canadiens last September, prior to the Canadiens' run to the Eastern Conference finals. If Drury really wanted Danault, he would've known that offer would be the starting point, and it would likely take more. Hardly seems credible that he would then baulk at offering a little more than LA given how much he's already committed to Barclay Goodrow.
Regardless of what the truth is, I'm just glad that he didn't go that route. Danault is more a classical shutout center who is a low end #2 when it comes to offense generation, in some senses it would be like signing Bobby Holik or acquiring Eric Staal. Trying to use him in a role he wasn't really suited for.
So how about Eichel?
There was a bit of excitement when his agents were quoted on Monday as saying they expect their client to be traded in the 'near future', which drove speculation that a deal would be done in or around the free agency period kickoff.
Certainly there was a lot of anticipation yesterday, especially when the perceived frontrunner Minnesota Wild pulled back their interest
How the Wild would have made Eichel's contract work with $12M dead cap space next season and $14M in the two ensuing seasons would have been interesting to see, but nevertheless with the Wild out the focus turned to Anaheim, Vegas and Los Angeles as being the next potential suitors.
The Danault signing appeared to take the Kings out of the discussion, and that was further reinforced later when reports came out that the Kings had been out for some time and were more interested in seeing how their own prospects developed in the NHL than trading them away at this point.
Vegas had jumped into the picture the day before with the trade that sent goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and his $7M in salary to Chicago in exchange for a minor leaguer. Without a legitimate first line center since entering the league three years ago, it was thought they now had the room and assets to make a play for Eichel if they were interested. A trade with Ottawa for winger Evgeni Dadonov raised a few questions, but with just one year remaining on his contract they remained in play.
Likewise Anaheim were still considered to be an interested party despite bringing back their captain Ryan Getzlaf on a one year deal. Expectations are that Getzlaf will play a reduced role for the organization, and highlighting their relative lack of depth at center.
Hopes for a decision were quelled later in the afternoon though when Bob McKenzie reported on TSN that it was 'dead quiet' on the trade front, putting an end to the expectations for a quick decision.
The Rangers remain interested in a potential deal, though no team seems yet willing to meet the asking price that Sabres GM Kevyn Adams has insisted on to date. Of course there's still multiple teams out there who are monitoring the situation, and this will likely not be an easy transaction.
Within the Metropolitan division it seems plausible that the Blue Jackets, Devils and Islanders all could make a deal work, though perhaps the Islanders have fewer assets to offer up in exchange. Montreal too could use a center, but they appear to be heading a different direction and also play in the same division as the Sabres, making it an even tougher choice than the Metropolitan or more favorably, the Western divisions.
Seattle seems to have a lack of desirable assets, San Jose too might also not have enough and Calgary has some juggling to do if they are going to make it work financially.
For his part, Jack Eichel has no explicit control over where he would go yet, with his NMC clause kicking in next season for the remaining four years of his contract. That gives Adams a full year - if he so desires - to make a decision before the player exerts more leverage.
There's also the question of the neck injury and how impactful that might be to Eichel going forward. As Adams said himself, Eichel wishes to try a surgery that no other NHLer has undergone to replace his herniated disk with an artificial disk. The surgery itself has been practiced for 30 years, 20 or so years in the United States with thousands having been performed. Coincidentally the artificial disk was invented by a former gymnast from East Germany - Karin Buttner-Janz, though the instances of professional athlete use are very limited. You can read more on the specifics here.
In the shor term there's the question of how much time he'll miss at the start of the season, with perhaps a timeframe of 6-8 weeks after surgery an initial projection. As it stands now, if he had the surgery today he could be ready for camp, but you'd be cutting it close.
For Adams it's a bit of a no-win situation. Clearly the disagreement over the surgery has lead to a rift between the player and the organization, making communication between the parties more difficult. This isn't like the Sam Reinhart trade to Florida where the player and team worked together to an extent to make this a reality. Nor is it like Rasmus Ristolainen who returned a pretty good bounty for a more affordable and in-demand asset.
Adams took a lot of heat last season for getting such a poor return for Taylor Hall that he may perhaps might be more inclined to try and wait out his potential suitors than be saddled with more bad press, especially considering this is not an amicable split.
He'll also probably prefers that destination out west where Eichel is likely only going to be in Buffalo once a year and then only in the Stanley Cup Final if that should play out. An Eastern conference team obviously has a different dynamic and perhaps a higher price to pay to make a trade work.
Finally there's the question of where Eichel fits in. There's some question at this stage of his career, whether he is truly a leader or simply a star athlete who plays a role on the offense. His frustration with the years of losing as well as the contention over his treatment were clearly evident in his end of season press-conference, and some of his body language during this past season perhaps projected his desire to move on.
Of course we're talking about a 24 year old who has been in a losing organization, and it may be just a reflection of years of missed expectations - six seasons without the playoffs, but it's something for teams to keep in mind.
It seems fairly clear for the Rangers that an Eichel acquisition would mean the end of Mika Zibanejad in New York. With Zibanejad expected to earn around $10M annually for an extended term, and if the Rangers were to bring him back following an Eichel trade they'd have ~$60M of their $81.5 tied up in just seven players: Artemi Panarin, Eichel, Zibanejad, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, Igor Shesterkin and Chris Kreider. With $14M already committed to eight players, and the need to resign or deal Georgiev, Blais, Kakko, Kravtsov, Gauthier, McKegg, Rooney and Tinordi.
Of course they might find a way to trade Kreider, which would free up $6.5M, but with a No Move Clause for the next three seasons before a modified No Trade Clause kicks in, that seems unlikely. Term on Zibanejad's next contract will likely carry some risk anyway, so it may be the case that the Rangers would be better off walking from the then 29 year old anyway.
Looking at Eichel the player, even with the injury, it wouid appear you're getting a top 10 NHL center who can possibly break the 100 point mark. His contract has four more years left at $10M AAV, and that isn't necessarily as bad as resigning Zibanejad for an additional seven seasons at the same amount. Zibanejad is of course a known quantity and a better goal scorer, and they're both right-handed shots.
It would mean that after next season, the Rangers would again find themselves looking for a second line center, something they don't have in their system and are one of the most sought after positions in the game right now.
Eichel would give the Rangers a different look, and the Rangers would have to rely on the emerging young wingers to provide the offense they lost with Pavel Buchnevich and a potential departure of Mika Zibanejad.
Contract-wise, he offers a better potential value than Zibanejad who is at his peak age right now, whereas Eichel should still be on an upward trajectory. Neither of those two players offers much in the way of physicality or faceoff prowess, though Zibanejad has the edge on the defensive and PK side right now.
The cost to acquire Eichel is also something to consider. If it's something like Zac Jones, Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome and a 1st then the Rangers have better options available and it helps balance out the line-up a bit. Once you start looking at players like K'Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Braden Schnedier, Vitali Kravtsov and Kaapo Kakko, the calculations become much more complicated.
We'll continue to wait and see, but I do believe the Rangers will remain in the hunt until a decision is made. I expect we'll see something done by around August 15th given an October 12th opening night, but we'll just have to be patient and see how this plays out.