You’ve read that Thursday’s trade, in which the Rangers sent pending free agent winger Michael Grabner to the Devils in exchange for New Jersey’s second-round selection in the 2018 draft plus 20-year-old defenseman Yegor Rykov, was the first ever between the combatants in the 36-year Battle of the Hudson.
And that is literally true. But it did not mark the first player exchange between the franchises, that having occurred at the 1982 waiver draft preceding the Devils’ first year in New Jersey after relocating that summer from Colorado.
The Devils were looking for a defenseman and a veteran presence. A fellow who has covered hockey and the Blueshirts for some years had joined the New Jersey front office on the public relations side. He was included in the conversation regarding the waiver draft. And he spotted that the Rangers had not protected 37-year-old Carol Vadnais.
“Vad can still play,” the fellow said in a meeting that included general manager/coach Billy MacMillan and vice president of hockey Max McNab. “And he’ll be good in the room with the kids.”
Thus, the Devils selected Vadnais in the second round while in turn dropping defenseman Graeme Nicolson from the protected list. The Rangers were stunned at losing the veteran they never dreamed would be chosen. Rather than take the $50,000 cash compensation for losing Vadnais, general manager Craig Patrick retaliated by claiming the modestly gifted Nicolson, who played a total of 10 midseason games for the Rangers.
Vadnais, furious at leaving the Original Six quasi-contenders for the hapless expansion-like squad that went on to finish 17-49-14, did not speak to me for weeks after he learned the origin of his claim. He retired after the season and returned to Broadway as an assistant coach on Herb Brooks’ staff.
Thirty-six years later, the teams swapped players in a deal that, given recent history, almost seems upside down. There is no reason for Grabner to hold anything against me, or anyone on this side of the Hudson.
This Rangers housecleaning is about acquiring the most attractive assets possible regardless of from whence they are coming. As long as Grabner — who led the Rangers with 25 goals this year and 52 in his two years on Broadway — doesn’t propel the Devils to the conference finals, the Blueshirts couldn’t care less about aiding their geographical rival.
Why draw the line at the conference finals? Because by winning two rounds, the Devils would move from their current draft position of 17th (and thus 48th in the second round) to between 27th and 31st (between 58th and 62nd in the second round) as a final four entrant. But that risk looms in all deals with draft picks coming back from contenders.
Clearly, the Rangers’ front-office talent evaluators see upside in Rykov, who is likely at least two years away from competing for an NHL spot and whose KHL contract runs through 2018-19, anyway. One individual familiar with the 6-foot-2, 215-pound lefty, who has recorded 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 51 games with SKA, told The Post that Rykov is capable in his own end, is an adequate skater, and does everything reasonably well, but nothing exceptionally well.
He probably should be regarded as a suspect as much as a prospect — and in need of time to develop — but then, aren’t most of them?
The Rangers are amassing pieces here, previously having obtained a third-rounder and 24-year-old defenseman Rob O’Gara from the Bruins in exchange for Nick Holden. The big payoffs are expected in return for Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh, and perhaps for Mats Zuccarello. Nash, a rental property, is definitely going. And though there is no urgency to move McDonagh and Zuccarello, momentum appears to be building.
There is every chance that the Rangers, whose 4-1 Friday loss to the Wild at the Garden marked their sixth straight regulation defeat — and their 16th in the past 21 matches (5-16) — will be unrecognizable when they convene for practice in Vancouver on Tuesday, the day after the deadline. Of course, you could say that about them now.
But the Blueshirts could have one very recognizable face on Broadway next year. That could be Grabner, who would be amenable to returning if the price is right on a free-agent contract. Double the current two years and $1.65 million per under which No. 40 is working and you probably have the makings of a deal.
Whether the Rangers will be back in the business of signing veteran free agents this summer — including, most notably, Rykov’s teammate, Ilya Kovalchuk — to accelerate their rebuilding, remains to be seen.