Grabner Trade: Analyzing Rykov and the 2nd-Round Selection

Grabner Trade: Analyzing Rykov and the 2nd-Round Selection

Though the Rangers began their trading deadline dispersal with the sale of Nick Holden to Boston, the surprising trade of Michael Grabner across the Hudson River was truly the substantial move for the Rangers as they begin their indefinite rebuild.

In return for Grabner, the Rangers acquired defenseman Yegor Rykov and the Devils’ second-round pick in 2018.

Rykov, 20, is a Russian left-handed defenseman whom the Devils drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NHL draft. He plays in the KHL for SKA St. Petersburg, which is the top team in the league. Typically, he plays on their third pairing and earns only 13 or 14 minutes per night. Given his age and SKA’s stature, that is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Through 51 games, he has produced 2 goals and 12 assists, which is solid production given his age, usage, and lack of power play opportunities.

There’s nothing particularly exceptional about Rykov. Instead, it is his well-roundedness that makes him an interesting prospect. He was listed at 6’2, 195 pounds as an 18-year old in 2015. Since then, he has bulked up and added 20 pounds. While he’s not going to blaze past anyone, he is an efficient skater; especially given his size.

Rykov has good defensive instincts. I pored over some video of Rykov in the KHL this season, as well as World Juniors in January of 2017. His ability to read plays and get his stick or body in passing lanes stood out (watch for 57 in blue, then 28 in red).

I found that Rykov’s weak spot was in handling the puck in the defensive and neutral zones. When he has time and space, he makes crisp passes the width of the ice or across zones. However, with the threat of pressure, it took him an extra second to control the puck and survey his options. Or, even worse, he would throw the puck away.

This is where the imperfect nature of watching video comes into play. Alex Nunn and Josh Khalfin, both of whom have credible opinions, have lauded Rykov’s ability to move the puck. I watched four games with a dedicated focus on Rykov. Every player has good and bad games, and it’s possible I just picked games containing the outliers. Or that my perception is simply wrong. It’s also possible my evaluation is accurate. In this case, I defer to the knowledge of Alex and Josh and give Rykov the benefit of the doubt. He has produced a decent number of assists in the KHL and at the 2017 World Juniors, which indicates some passing prowess. Certainly, it’s something I will look at in his game going forward.

It’s a fool’s errand to evaluate prospects two years after the fact based on where they were drafted, but that’s particularly true for Rykov. His KHL affiliation surely scared teams and dropped him 60-90 picks lower than his talent dictated. It’s also why the Devils were perhaps amenable to parting with him.

When it comes to Russians, the Rangers have been undeterred in the past, and have little reason to be concerned about Rykov. The Rangers have had no problem recruiting Russians in the past, now have a theoretical built-in support system with both Pavel Buchnevich and Alexandar Georgiev and they have the infrastructure in place to make Rykov feel welcome. They have multiple Russian scouts in the organization with tremendous influence, Igor Shestyorkin is a teammate of his at SKA. Both of their KHL contracts run out at the end of the 2019 season, and it’s a reasonable expectation that both will sign with the Rangers at that time.

Rykov is not a game-breaking or dazzling talent, but he is very polished for his age. Certainly, he has upside as a second-pairing defenseman who can eat important minutes both at even strength and on the penalty kill.

The second-round pick the Rangers acquired from the Devils is for this upcoming draft, and where it falls will depend on a number of factors, including how the Devils and other teams do in the playoffs. Currently, it projects at 44th overall, and it will probably fall right around there. That’s notably better than the 55th-62nd overall pick they likely would have gotten had they traded Grabner to one of the top contenders, and I imagine that weighed as meaningful in General Manager Jeff Gorton’s mind when he decided to move Grabner to New Jersey.

Research done by TSN’s Scott Cullen on NHL drafts between 1990 and 2013 concluded that roughly 10 to 12 percent of players selected between 41st and 50th overall become top-six NHL forwards or top-four NHL defensemen. That’s a low success rate, clearly, but it’s the nature of the beast. The NHL draft is a numbers game, and that’s why it’s important for the Rangers to accumulate as many draft picks as they can. Collectively, they will give the Rangers a strong chance of grabbing one or two impact players. Furthermore, more picks of value give the Rangers more flexibility. They could trade down and increase their draft pick volume, or could use the pick to move up into the first round.

The Rangers targeted a first-round pick in return for Grabner, and it’s possible they would have milked one out of another team had they waited a few more days and held strong at that asking price. However, it goes both ways. There are a number of wingers on the trade market whom other teams could have turned to. Waiting longer could have easily have resulted in the Rangers overplaying their hand and scrambling to get whatever deal they could at the last minute. Among the many permutations for a potential return on Grabner, Rykov and a probable mid-second round pick rank among the best possible outcomes.

When it comes to Rangers' rebuild, rivalry takes backseat

When it comes to Rangers' rebuild, rivalry takes backseat

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.