Pavel Buchnevich trade was painful move Rangers’ plan demanded

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Right off the top, let’s stipulate that the optics of trading your first-line right winger for a bottom-six guy and a second-round draft pick is not going to make for an easy sell. It’s just not, regardless of the mitigating factors surrounding it.

So the Rangers’ Chris Drury will take heat for his first player-for-player trade as an NHL general manager, in which he sent Pavel Buchnevich to the Blues for Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round pick on Friday in the hours before the opening round of the draft. There is no question about that.

It is fair to say that Buchnevich last season became the player the Rangers had been waiting for since he first arrived in New York in September 2016. He played with grit, was diligent without the puck, developed into a superior penalty killer and for the most part lost the not-at-all charming woe-is-me body language that had become a trademark his younger years.

But just when No. 89 was about to say hello to fame and fortune, it became time to say good-bye, and through no fault of his own. Arbitration eligible and one year away from unrestricted free agency, Buchnevich was (and is) likely to command between $5.5 million and $6.5 million per on his next multiyear deal. Facing an onrushing cap crisis two years down the road, the Rangers could not accommodate that kind of number.

But perhaps equally important in the equation is that the Rangers were simply too unbalanced, too homogeneous, too top-heavy without the necessary bottom-six ingredients to win battles, to grind down the opposition, to emerge with two points when the top six was smothered. The previous regime collected a collection of talents. Yes, of course there is a place for that.

But there is no place for, say, nine similar talents who can’t assume traditional third- and fourth-line roles. This was not former coach David Quinn’s fault, but there were almost always guys out of place in the lineup because there was no defined spot for them. There was no real distinction between the second line’s duties and the third line’s responsibilities. The fourth line was essentially a repository for leftovers or guys being taught lessons.

That is going to change. It won’t be that way under this administration or under incoming head coach Gerard Gallant. The Rangers will have enough firepower up front and on the power play, but they will also present a formidable bottom six who strap on their hardhats, go to work and provide a different dimension. They will be tougher to play against. At least that’s the plan.

That is the genesis of the acquisition and long-term signing of Barclay Goodrow. That is the genesis of this deal for Blais, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound, 25-year-old who plays a grinding, physical, north-south game, will drop the gloves when the time is right, and can make a play or two. He recorded 28 points (14-14) in 76 games over the past two seasons while getting an average of 12:20 of ice time a night playing a fair amount on a line with Ryan O’Reilly. Among players with 70 or more games the last two years, Blais is fourth in hits per 60 minutes.

And Blais, just like Goodrow, has a ring, though Goodrow, the former Lightning winger, surely played a larger role in Tampa Bay’s repeat 2020 and 2021 titles than Blais did for the 2019 Blues. Still, there now is Stanley Cup pedigree in the room that had been missing. That item on the résumé is important to Drury.

Exchanging Buchnevich for Blais opens a top-six spot on the right side. As I suggested in this space Friday, the construction of the third line as a checking unit means that the Blueshirts won’t stack Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafreniere on the left. So one, most likely Lafreniere, will move to the right to fill the vacancy created by Buchnevich’s exit.

There is still much work to be done. The Jack Eichel Saga hangs over the offseason. So does the organizational deficit down the middle that was not addressed in Round One of the draft, when the Rangers tapped winger Brennan Othmann as the 16th selection, rather than a pair of highly regarded centers on the board.

The Rangers still must add Black-and-Blueshirts to the bottom-six mix. And there is a need for a left defenseman with size and a physical presence. There is ample cap space with which to address those areas with the free-agent market opening Wednesday. I wonder, does Zdeno Chara still fit the profile?

The Buchnevich deal is worthy of debate. The Rangers appear to have given a lot more than they received. That means they are blessed, correct? The return may seem light, but this was a targeted acquisition. The necessary transformation is under way. That’s not an optic. That’s reality.

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