The New York Rangers have a hole at center. As Mika Zibenajad and Kevin Hayes continue to develop, bringing in Joe Thornton can provide a short-term fix.
For the second straight offseason, the New York Rangers have chosen to re-tool their roster, opting to get younger while keeping a majority of their core intact.
Last summer, General Manager Jeff Gorton traded Derick Brassard — who had arguably his best season in New York that season — for Mika Zibenajad, a young center with tremendous upside and a lower cap hit. He also decided to not give a large chunk of money to Keith Yandle, and instead brought in Nick Holden for depth.
Compared to a year ago, the current moves have been much more aggressive. The loss of Oscar Lindberg was out of the Rangers hands, as he was selected in the NHL Expansion Draft, but the losses of Dan Girardi (buyout), Derek Stepan and Antii Raanta (trade) signals the end of an era of Blueshirts Hockey.
But as two alternate captains will be playing elsewhere in 2017, the Rangers have big holes to fill.
Although Girardi is on the downside of his career, fans would’ve been much more receptive to his spot in the lineup if it wasn’t for his ridiculous contract. Gorton and the rest of the front office are hoping they can re-sign Brendan Smith and that Anthony DeAngelo — who was sent to the Big Apple as a part of the Stepan/Raanta trade to the Arizona Coyotes — can reach his potential as an offensive defenseman and quarterback of the power play in his new home.
Stepan was never seen as an elite first line center, but was a consistent 50-point producer and was a frequent member of special teams play. Lindberg only has two full seasons of NHL experience, but the Rangers’ fourth line center from last season was — and in terms of the Vegas Golden Knights, still is — expected to take on a greater role next season.
As the roster is currently constructed, Zibenajad is expected to take over first line duties. He certainly has the skillset to be a force in the role, but the 24-year-old has yet to reach the prime of his career and still needs seasoning.
As it stands, Kevin Hayes is slotted as the second line center. That could be a problem, as he’s been inconsistent throughout his young career and tends to disappear when games count most. Both J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner have experience at the position, too, but have proved that their skills are better served on the wing.
It’s safe to say the Rangers will be in the market for a center.
Sure, former Rangers like Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore will garner attention, but neither will impact the the depth chart. Nick Bonino and Martin Hanzal have better offensive numbers, but may not be a significant upgrade over someone like Hayes either. Looking towards the trade market doesn’t appear to be a quality option as the cost of front line centers would gut the Rangers of depth and/or future assets.
Finding a bridge player is the way to go. Someone who fits the bill to a tee is Joe Thornton.
Thornton, 37, is viewed as one of the top free agents in a subpar class of available players. The 20-year veteran — who has split time between the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks — is largely considered one of the best feeders in the game, as evidenced by his 1,007 career assists.
Thornton has been rumored to be searching for a multi-year pact this offseason, something the Rangers may be hesitant to hand out. A combination of age and a torn ACL and MCL — an injury he played through during the Stanley Cup Playoffs — doesn’t exactly scream first line center.
But Thornton has proven that, despite his age, he’s been able to compete at a high level.
When healthy, you can pencil the Canadian native in as a 70-point scorer. Throughout his 12 seasons out West, Thornton has registered at least that total 10 different times, including a downright dominant 114 points a decade ago. He’s also noted for his ability as a defender, on the face-off dot and with a man advantage, three areas the Rangers can use help in next season.
It could be the best case scenario if Thornton decides to take his talents to Broadway. He’d alleviate pressure on both Zibenajad and Hayes, as they can develop on the second and third lines, respectively. His selflessness and elite vision open up additional opportunities for Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, amongst others, and he’d be a tremendous addition to a power play that was a key reason behind the Rangers’ playoff downfall.
Most importantly, his presence will continue the narrative of winning in Madison Square Garden. He’ll be a short-term answer atop the center depth chart and can be another aid in Henrik Lundqvist’s quest for a Stanley Cup.
Of course, Gorton and the Rangers will have to see if Thornton’s knee is okay and will also need to convince him to accept a one or two-year deal.
And if that happens, Thornton — a six-time All-Star, an Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophy recipient, and a leader both on and off the ice — would be the perfect fit for the New York Rangers.