New York Rangers: Digesting the deadline departures of Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes

New York Rangers. Zucc and Hayes. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
New York Rangers. Zucc and Hayes. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

After a second consecutive trade deadline fire sale for the New York Rangers, it is time to swallow another wave of change.

For what seemed to be an interminable period of debate and endless trade rumors regarding the New York Rangers, the band-aid has finally been ripped off.

We had surmised since the summer that pending UFAs and fan favorites, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, would be dealt by the harrowing February 25 mark. And as much as it pains me to press the keys into typing this, they were.

Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars for a conditional 2019 second and 2020 third round pick. Kevin Hayes to the Winnipeg Jets for forward Brandon Lemieux, a 2019 first round pick and conditional 2020 pick.

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As much as the realistic fan who understands the path of a rebuild might accept, it still doesn’t quite hit you until it is a reality that home-grown Rangers like them are really gone.

You get the reasoning behind it, but it is still a gut-wrenching feeling.

For Zuccarello, there wasn’t much of a chance that the Rangers would have ever kept him given the plans they have had ongoing since last February. In today’s NHL, the average age is around 23 and a half.

The landscape of this league has drastically changed over the last several years to be all about youth, skill and speed. That’s not to say that Zuccarello, who will be 32 in September, can’t still produce.

He is a bonafide top six forward on almost any club and since the new year, had been playing some of the most compelling hockey Rangers fans had seen.

In fact, Jeff Gorton even touched base with his agent about two weeks before the deadline regarding an extension. But Zuccarello had been asking for term the Rangers were not comfortable committing to given their rebuild timeline.

Yes, you could say he could have been kept for leadership purposes, which is an argument I had stood by. But again, as a 31-year-old pending UFA and Jeff Gorton being thirsty for assets, there was just no shot, no matter how much we loved him and the organization respected him.

This was just a foregone conclusion and if it was any consolation, we had plenty of time to acknowledge and accept it, rather than being smacked in the face. He could have been gone at last year’s deadline along with the first truck of Rangers UPS shipments, so at least we got another year out of him.

As for his return, it is disturbing to think that one of the most beloved Rangers ever departed for draft choices, but that is what management is in pursuit of. And also, let’s not forget, he is a rental.

The ideal package that was rumored to go for Zuccarello was a second rounder and possibly a mid-level prospect.

I guess Gorton figured he found the best deal available when the Stars offered the second and third rounders that could both turn to a first if:

a) The Stars pass the second round and Zuccarello plays 50% of their playoff games and;

b) Zuccarello resigns with Dallas.

Apparently, conditions aside, the second and third rounders alone were already the highest picks being offered for him by the market. So Gorton just quit while he was ahead.

“Rebuild or no rebuild, fans pay top dollar for these games. There needs to be some sort of competitive product on the ice in the meantime. Continuing to gut every bit of the core that is left for draft picks to me is not right.”

Frankly, I am indifferent about this return. If I was someone who didn’t understand the context of all this and just discovered that Zuccarello was traded for picks, I would think the heart of the franchise was just dealt for some dice rolls and I would be outraged (pretty much every comment on the Rangers trade announcement post by baby boomer Facebook users, which actually provided me much-needed laughter).

But understanding the path of the rebuild and all, the fact that he is a rental, is 31 and the Rangers were likely going nowhere this season, there is some worth behind it.

My skepticism kicks in because the Rangers do not have a storied past of drafting anybody elite. Yes, there was Henrik Lundqvist in the year 2000, but what were the odds?

I guess you could say that the more you collect, the better the chances. But was it worth trading a player that means this much to your franchise for chance on kids you’ll likely have to develop for some odd years?

When it’s put that way, no. Even if he is 31. You acknowledge what he does for you on and off the ice and you build your new foundation around that. But I digress. This Zuccarello debate did and still could go on forever. It is a true conundrum and I respect both sides of the argument.

Best way of looking at it, the Rangers obtained assets they plan to use to help grow talent and maybe they look to resign him July 1. If not, that’s just this business and we will always have the memories of the heyday with Mats Zuccarello to cherish.

Things have already went pretty fast for him as after he was traded Saturday night, he drove up to Chicago to face the Blackhawks for a 3 p.m. game, scored two points, then blocked a shot and broke his arm.

The poor guy needs surgery and will be out at least 4-6 weeks. A pretty bizarre first day at work I’d say.

Now onto an even bigger headache. The Kevin Hayes saga.

I was always pretty transparent about how I felt about Kevin Hayes. For all who know me, they know how much I admired him over the years. I truly believed he was something special for the Rangers.

At 26-years-old heading on 27 this May, I felt he was at the perfect moment in his career to be a young veteran that could be a center piece throughout the rebuild.

The murky argument for Zuccarello could’ve gone both ways, but Hayes I was 100% for signing him.

Yes, he wanted 6-7 years in term, but to me, I felt he was worth it. He was vocal about wanting to be a Ranger for his career and he did everything to prove it both last season and this year. In doing so, I believe he became the best all around Ranger. However, management didn’t feel it was prudent to commit and questioned if his play would last.

I think when you have a 6’5” center who plays a solid 200-foot game, is a weapon on the power play, a top penalty-killer, someone who eats minutes for you, is an elite passer and can shoot, it is a unique player you can build around.

How long will it take to replace Kevin Hayes now? Filip Chytil is still being scratched from the lineup for effort issues and Lias Andersson is far from being anything close.

I guess you could say the Rangers have cleared enough cap space to land a big-time name in the offseason. But if we’re banking on draft picks to become what he was, it is just mindless to me that he was dealt for just a chance at regenerating his services.

Gorton did also reach out to Hayes’ agent in regards to a contract just to test the waters, but like Zuccarello, felt the ask was too long.

Of course, we could keep our fingers crossed for a July 1. return from Hayes too, but it is unlikely. If the Rangers were going to resign them, they would have just done it here in February. Nothing is going to change whether a conversation is had in the winter or the summer. Both sides will still want the same. But hey, who knows?

In return for Hayes’ talents for the playoffs, the Jets gave back Lemieux, a 22-year-old hard-nosed forward, their first round pick this year and a conditional 2020 fourth rounder if they should win the Stanley Cup.

Lemieux only has had 11 points in Winnipeg this season, but he was used on their fourth line and will have a lot more opportunity in New York. So his value is a question mark, but I am intrigued.

The first rounder will likely land somewhere between 23-31 overall, which is a pretty rare place to land an elite player in the draft.

Barring Lemieux’s anticipated performance, I disagree with this return and any trade that would have involved Hayes for that matter. It’s the ideal return you could have wanted for him, I just feel he was more valuable in royal blue.

Rebuild or no rebuild, fans pay top dollar for these games. There needs to be some sort of competitive product on the ice in the meantime. Continuing to gut every bit of the core that is left for draft picks to me is not right.

This cannot just be a team composed of prospects and revival projects.

McDonagh, Stepan, Nash and even Zuccarello, are all players that despite the emotional parting of ways, I was at peace with the logic of their dealings.

Players like Hayes and J.T. Miller who are cracking their primes in their mid twenties and wield unique on-ice abilities are the players you should build around, not deal away in your fire sales.

In my opinion, those are examples of guys who should have been at the forefront of the rebuild. Instead, they will possibly battle for a Stanley Cup this year with Miller, along with the rest of the collection of former Rangers, on the league-dominating Lightning.

Which leads me to how Rangers fans can ideally root for what in the playoffs in relation to these conditional picks.

According to the draft conditions, Rangers fans should be rooting for a healthy Zuccarello to help the Stars into at least the conference final, the Lightning to win the cup and the Jets to lose as quick as possible.

If this all happens, the Rangers conditional picks with both the Stars and Lightning would transform into two additional firsts on top of the Winnipeg first and their own for a total of four.

The Stars pick would become something between 28-30, the Lightning at 31 and the Jets pick being as low as possible. At least this is how I see things.

I will say, despite bidding farewell to two of my favorite all-time Rangers, I am happy this is over with.

Every hockey journalist, analyst and insider across the continent beat it like a dead horse all season long and I am relieved to not have to hear it anymore.

As an obsessive consumer of Rangers news and content, I feel like the weight of a grand piano has been lifted off my back where I can search the team’s name into google again without the results being riddled with anxiety-provoking articles regarding players I love being dealt.

To put this situation in pop culture terms, if the Rangers rebuild were a Marvel movie, Jeff Gorton is Thanos and the entire 2015 President’s Trophy winning Rangers team are the Avengers. Jeff has snapped his finger and one by one everyone is dissolving to ash. It may be for what he believes is a better cause, but it is still heart-breaking to watch them disappear.

Once these players leave, it is like an entire era of our lives, where through good times and bad we would have the comfort of their play and the familiarity of their faces in our homes, is over. It’s the cost of being a sports fan. But you’ll still live and die by the team, no matter what hurts or enthralls you.

Next. Love Live The King. dark

Thank you Mats and Kevin for some unforgettable memories. You will always be Rangers.