After wading through all of the possibilities, the Rangers came out on the other side of Monday’s trade deadline just about where they thought they would be. That is to say, they continued this rebuild by shipping out the present and focusing on the future.
The trio of pending unrestricted free agents are all gone, as general manager Jeff Gorton most notably sent Kevin Hayes to the Jets in exchange for a first-round pick, hard-nosed 22-year-old forward Brendan Lemieux — son of former Devil Claude — plus a fourth-round pick in 2022 if Winnipeg ends up winning the Stanley Cup. No salary was retained, so the Jets took on the full prorated value remaining on the one-year, $5.175 million deal Hayes signed this past summer.
Gorton then moved defenseman Adam McQuaid to the Blue Jackets, recouping the fourth- and seventh-round picks (plus Steven Kampfer) it took to acquire him from the Bruins in September, while also bringing back 23-year-old defenseman Julius Bergman.
With fan favorite Mats Zuccarello getting dealt to the Stars on Sunday, Gorton continues to stockpile assets in an attempt to accelerate the process that began in earnest back on Feb. 8, 2018, when the front office sent a letter to the fans explaining the difficult process ahead.
“I think we pretty much knew what the prices would be,” Gorton said on a conference call. “I would say we met, or hopefully did better, than our expectations.”
The team had come to a contract impasse with Hayes, the rising 26-year-old center who spent parts of five seasons playing for the Blueshirts. That same obstacle — the length of the deal — is likely going to keep him from returning as a free agent on July 1.
“We had a number of talks with his agent, Bob Murray, and we had something in mind that we thought could work,” Gorton said. “But at the end of the day, we just felt like, at this time, where the organization was at, to trade Kevin was our best course of action to try to get as many assets as we could.”
Hayes seemed pretty happy to land in Winnipeg, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender currently atop the Central Division. The big-bodied Bostonian credited first-year head coach David Quinn, along with his predecessor, Alain Vigneault, for turning him into a more well-rounded player, and he seemed equally excited about playing for the Jets as he was sad to leave the Rangers.
“I tried not to think about it, but it definitely plays a little bit of a role and it’s been pretty emotional saying goodbye to some of the guys,” Hayes said on a call. “But I’m excited to get going here and excited to finally get back to playing for a Stanley Cup and playing with a good team.”
The most immediate evaluation of the return will come with Lemieux, who is expected to be at practice on Tuesday and then in the lineup for Wednesday night’s Garden match against the Lightning. He played 44 games for the Jets this season, putting up nine goals and 11 points. He certainly brings an edge. Last season with the Manitoba Moose he was the first AHL player since 2014-15 to register at least 40 points and 150 penalty minutes.
“I would think we’re going to give him a pretty big opportunity here,” Gorton said, “with some ice time and playing up in the lineup and see what he can do for us right away.”
Bergman is set to start with AHL Hartford, and the Rangers also did some housekeeping by signing Boo Nieves and Steven Fogarty to one-year deals.
But the main point is the organization now has a cache of assets, including five picks in the first two rounds of this coming draft. They also will have a ton of space under the salary cap, and will surely be players in the free-agent market on July 1.
So as tough as it might have been to make some of the trades, this was all part of the Rangers’ plan to prepare for the future — which they hope comes sooner rather than later.
“We’ve added a lot of assets and it gives us some flexibility,” Gorton said. “A lot of opportunity for our team to get better, hopefully in a relatively quick fashion.”
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