Who is Mike Gillis trying to reel in?
I generally try to make a point of refraining from jumping in on rumour-mongering. I don’t have any “inside” sources, nor do I pretend to. My job is to analyze things tangible things that we do know, like player performance and team trends. I don’t have “an anonymous source” whispering things into my ear.
Generally speaking I know as much as about all of the trade talk as Twitter tells me, which is a dangerous game; for every report going in one direction, there’s quickly another attempting to not only refute it but also argue the opposite. Around this time of year we have to be careful in deciphering what’s real, and what’s a BS smokescreen, all of which can prove to be easier said than done.
But at this point I feel fairly confident in speculating about the Ryan Kesler trade rumours. Numerous trusted sources (basically everyone other than the player and his agent, *cough cough*) have come out saying they’ve heard the same thing – Ryan Kesler has in no uncertain terms made it clear to the Canucks that he’d like to move on from the organization.
So with that in mind, let’s spend some time looking at the potential landing spots, and even more importantly, the potential returns Mike Gillis and his staff could be looking for in return for their best two-way player.
During a radio hit last night, Jason Botchford hinted that the team has put together something of a “short list” of players they have in mind. Meanwhile, Nick Kypreos reported that the Canucks are looking for a rather familiar package:
— Nick Kypreos (@RealKyper) February 27, 2014
Looks awfully similar to something we saw not too long ago, no? It makes sense, though. While the Canucks are clearly not having the type of season they likely envisioned heading in, they’re still not in a position to go through a full-on rebuild. They have too many good hockey players on their roster at the moment to accomplish something like that, and I’d imagine that the brain trust of the team doesn’t want to see something like that happen, either.
As I mentioned not too long ago, they’re better off attempting to reload on the fly like the San Jose Sharks did than going full-Edmonton Oilers. You never want to go full-Edmonton Oilers.
In a perfect world they’re going to try and get their hands on a young roster player that can step right into the lineup to contribute, and a prospect + picks to both supplement guys like Horvat and Shinkaruk that they’ve recently brought into the system, but also potentially allow them to make another big move come summer time.
It’s a steep price, but Ryan Kesler is a former 40-goal scorer who is still on the right side of 30 for the time being, can still drive possession while playing tough minutes, and is an absolute horse. No forward plays more than him per game this year, only 5 players have more shots on goal than him, and his $5 mil cap hit over the next two seasons is a pretty appealing one, all things considered.
The Canucks are right to drive a hard bargain and ask for a lot. A team that has (or at the very least, thinks it has) legitimate playoff aspirations would be substantially upgrading their team by bringing a player with Kesler’s skillset into the mix.
Here are the options (in alphabetical order, rather than order of preference or likeliness, just to be clear):
Columbus Blue Jackets
All Kesler photoshops via The Stanchion
The Columbus Blue Jackets have been mentioned as one of the teams that has inquired about Kesler’s availability. They’re currently 3 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but that’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.
They’ve been playing significantly better hockey for a while now (on November 30th they were a 45.5% fenwick close team, and have jumped all the way up to 50.6%), and they finally have both Nathan Horton and Marian Gaborik in the lineup at the same time. They seem poised to make a run, particularly given how open their Conference is; after the Bruins and Penguins, it’s a complete and utter crapshoot).
Just as importantly, the Blue Jackets have a plethora of young assets to play with. They had themselves 3 picks in last year’s 1st round, and thanks to years of being bad they’ve accumulated quite the collection of intriguing players.
The first one that comes to mind is Ryan Johansen, a local boy from Port Moody.
While it’s nice to dream, I have to wonder why on earth the Blue Jackets would move him in this particular deal. There’s a case to be made that he’s nearly already Kesler’s equal these days:
|Player||Goals||Assists||Corsi Rel QoC||OZ Start %||Corsi For %||Corsi Rel|
Not to mention that Johansen is 8 years younger than Kesler, with substantially mileage on his body. I know that him coming back to Vancouver would make for a great story, and that it would be quite the haul for the Canucks, but I don’t think it’s a realistic one.
I’d argue that the much more realistic target would be Boone Jenner; I’m personally a big fan of what he brings to the table, even if he hasn’t been able to fully show it in his first year as a pro because of an early injury that derailed him, and the smorgasbord of players with which Todd Richards has to work with in Columbus. Obviously Jenner himself wouldn’t be enough, but as part of a package involving something like Alexander Wennberg (14th overall last summer) and a pick? Now I’m listening.
The elephant in the room: would Ryan Kesler waive his NTC to go to Columbus for the next 2+ seasons? I can’t speak to that. The only person that could answer that is Kesler himself, who played a season of college hockey in Ohio State once upon a time. People would lead you to believe that he’d decline the option to play there because of how Columbus is generally perceived by people looking at it from a distance, and because of his continued beef with RJ Umberger (as if two players that didn’t like each other have never gotten over their personal problems and played together!). That may very well be true, but I’m not in a position to rule anything out.
At last year’s deadline they surprised everyone by being the team to pry Marian Gaborik from the Rangers. I distinctly remember everyone taking a double-take and going, “Columbus? Really?.. Like, the Blue Jackets?”. Just remember that Jarmo Kekalainen is one feisty individual.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are one of their other trendy teams considered to be in on The Ryan Kesler Sweepstakes. Like Columbus, they’re in that jumbled up group of middle tier Eastern Conference teams, and they’ve got a ton of young trade chips to work with.
Two other things that help make Detroit look like a feasible destination for Kesler: he’s from Michigan, and Henrik Zetterberg is out for the regular season following back surgery. All of that makes it much easier to imagine these two teams swinging a deal that could benefit both sides.
The thing that could potentially throw a wrench into this plan, though, is that the three players I’d highlight as the best options all play on the wing. I’m well aware that the center position is already one of need for the Canucks, and were they to move Kesler they’d surely need to replace him right away with a competent NHL pivot (if only to avoid relegation), but I’m also weary of pigeonholing assets.
General Managers frequently get themselves into trouble when they put too much significance on acquiring players that fit specific roles, rather than just acquiring the best players possible and dealing with it later. Look at the Vancouver Canucks right now and where they sit in the standings. Their main concern should be bringing in good hockey players, regardless of which position they play.
*wipes drool from mouth, and keyboard*
The three names that come to mind on the Red Wings are Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Tomas Jurco. If you’d like scouting reports and deeper evaluations on them, I’d highly recommend reading Corey Pronman’s review from prior to the season.
Nyquist is the biggest, most established name, but he’s also their senior by a couple of years. Considering the fact that he had put up 118 points in 114 games at Grand Rapids from ’11-’13, it struck me as a particularly curious decision for the Red Wings to send him back down to the AHL to start the year like they did.
But with all of the injuries they’ve dealt with, their hand was forced in calling him up, and he’s been awesome in his first real extended look in the NHL. He hasn’t needed to be sheltered while playing on the team’s top line (or whatever has been left of it), and has managed 27 points in 35 games. Let me put his production in perspective for you: he’d currently be one goal away from being 2nd on the Canucks in goals on the season, despite having played 25 fewer games than Chris Higgins (who is 2nd on the team with 16 goals).
Tatar and Jurco both have a smaller sample size to work with this season, but both are known for having a filthy set of hands, and being very creative offensively. I’d say that the Dallas Stars are aware of what Tatar is capable of based on the GIF I’ve attached above. Canucks fans should be salivating at the phrase “filthy set of hands, creative offensively”, because it’s something that this team has been clearly devoid of in recent seasons. The Canucks have a need down the middle, sure, but it’s not like their cupboard is filled with wingers that can make things happen and put the puck into the net, either.
I should finally note that the Red Wings have a couple other intriguing prospects in their system as well. Guys like Calle Jarnkrok, Riley Sheahan, and Anthony Mantha all come to mind. Ken Holland isn’t one to make rash, miscalculated decisions, but on paper the fit between these two trading partners sure seems like it’s there.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are right smack-dab in the middle of that aforementioned Eastern Conference playoff picture, and between the likes of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, and JT Miller, surely have some trade chips that would get Mike Gillis’ attention. In particular Stepan, who is a legitimately good center that came up and thrived under the watch of John Tortorella.
I had questions about how much Stepan was actually worth as a two-way pivot because of the three-ply minutes he was crushing in over the past two seasons, but this year he has managed to remain a positive possession player despite facing notably tougher competition, and starting far fewer shifts in the offensive zone.
There’s a fit, right?
Well, there’s just one little problem..
As you’ll recall, Kesler and Vigneault didn’t exactly have the smoothest of relationships. Ray Ferraro sounded pretty convinced that a reunion wasn’t likely at all. Along those same lines, Nick Kypreos said that cited the “Alain Factor” as a big roadblock in a potential deal, and Tony Gallagher took it 19219210 steps further when he said “Kesler would rather go to prison than play for Alain Vigneault”.
Sure, that’s a bit much, but the point is well taken.
Back on June 11th I wrote about the potential fit between the Flyers and Canucks as it related to all of the Alex Edler rumours circulating at the time. All of it still stands, and when it comes to Ryan Kesler, the connection between the two teams is even stronger because of:
Paul Holmgren. His undying thirst for big name forwards that make a lot of money will never be quenched. I could totally see him going all-in on Kesler, giving up young valuable assets along the way because, Paul Holmgren.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if he broke up a Stanley Cup finalist so that he could go from a 26-year old Mike Richards –> 2+ years of cultivating and developing the young talent he got in return for him –> a soon-to-be 30-year old Ryan Kesler. Hollywood wouldn’t go through with this script because of how obvious and too perfect it is.
I know that Wayne Simmonds provides an intriguing combination of size and skill, and that Brayden Schenn throws a lot of hits and has this allure about him because of how good he was in the WHL and how high the Kings drafted him, but Sean Couturier is far and away the guy to target if you’re Mike Gillis and the Canucks. Just look at how the underlying numbers stack up:
|Player||Corsi Rel QoC||Off Zone Start %||Corsi Rel|
A player of Sean Couturier’s age really shouldn’t be able to handle the types of minutes that he does, as gracefully and effectively as he does. He has 29 points on the season (compared to 33 for Schenn and 43 for Simmonds), despite playing with significantly inferior linemates, incomparably more difficult circumstances, and quite possibly being the league’s best forward on the penalty kill.
He’s also still be only 21 years old well into next season, and is locked up for the next two years at paltry $1.75 mil cap hit. Based on his production in Major Junior (to go along with his production at the NHL taking everything into consideration), I suspect that he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what the end result will be once he hits his ceiling. I’d say that, for my money, he’s the best and most appealing player that the Canucks could conceivably get their hands on as a return for Kesler.
A few weeks ago it came to my attention that the Canucks and Penguins had been discussed a potential deal for Kesler, which broke off at the last minute prior to the trade freeze accompanying the Olympic break. The rumoured return was Brandon Sutter and Simon Despres, which at first glance struck me as not being nearly enough. After doing some more digging, I can say that it’s definitely not enough.
The irony of that deal is that the Penguins were in the exact same spot as the Canucks a while back, and it’s how they got Sutter in the first place. To go along with the two prospect defensemen they got from the Hurricanes, they also received Brandon Sutter, who was supposed to jump right into Staal’s spot as the 3rd center behind Crosby and Malkin. He was the 11th overall pick back in ’07, and had shown that he could handle the tough minutes reasonably well during his time in Carolina.
Unfortunately for both him and the Penguins, he has been a total tire-fire during his time in Pittsburgh. Most players that boast a sub-40 OZ start % and a Corsi Rel QoC of nearly 1.500 aren’t expected to have good possession data. So he was given something of a free pass for being a 42.4% corsi player.
But this year.. he has been a trainwreck. He’s actually still at a 42.4 corsi for%, but the problem is that it has come during significantly softer minutes (up to 43.5 OZ start %, playing tertiary competition). A potential excuse for him is that his two most common linemates this year have been Tanner Glass and Chris Conner (?), and while that’s certainly valid, if he’s the player that he was touted as being then he should still have better numbers. It’s as simple as that.
If you remain unconvinced that Sutter isn’t the answer, I’d strongly advise you to read Mike Colligan’s article on the “Three Center Model” in Pittsburgh. I’m sure that Ray Shero will pursue Kesler very aggressively over the next week – his team is a Stanley Cup contender, but something needs to be done about that bottom-6 if they’re going to have a realistic shot at beating the Bruins – but if Brandon Sutter is the roster player he’s dangling, then it would behoove Mike Gillis to #logoff.
Tampa Bay Lightning
For some reason I haven’t seen the Tampa Bay Lightning floated around in the discussion of the 4-5 main teams that could be a fit for Ryan Kesler. I find that very surprising; they’re currently 3rd in the East, and have managed to be a top-10 fenwick close team despite not having the services of Steven Stamkos for the past 4 months. They’ve done so because of the tremendous youth depth that Steve Yzerman has been able to assemble, to go along with Ben Bishop’s Vezina-worthy campaign, and Marty St.Louis being amazing.
To get familiar with the players they’d be able to offer, I recommend checking out Corey Pronman’s write-up from the summer. Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, and and Ondrej Palat are all very intriguing options. If they offered up two of those guys to go along with a pick, I’m sure they’d have Mike Gillis’ ear.
The Wild Cards
I spent a lot of time debating whether or not I wanted to include some other teams on this list, but we’ve already ran long, so I’ll just run through them here. On paper the Toronto Maple Leafs would seem like a potential trade partner; after running their best center out of town last summer, they could desperately use a game-breaker down the middle to go along with Kessel and JVR on the wings.
The problem with them, though, is that there’s a lot of speculation that a) they’re not willing to part with Nazem Kadri/Jake Gardiner (which is a deal-breaker right there), and b) that Francesco Aquilini reportedly doesn’t want to see his guys shining in the national spotlight on the Leafs.
Then there’s the Washington Capitals, who could desperately use a 1B/2A option down the middle to go along with Nicklas Backstrom. I actually never even really considered them as a candidate until I read Craig Custance’s article (Insider) the other day, which got me thinking. The problem is that they already blew their load prematurely when they gave away Filip Forsberg during last year’s deadline, and I can’t really see Mike Gillis trading away Ryan Kesler for a package centered around a Russian player like Kuznetsov.
Finally, you’ll notice that all of the teams we’ve highlighted in this article reside in the Eastern Conference. Were the Blackhawks or Ducks (or even Colorado, Minnesota, etc.) to approach the Canucks with a Godfather offer of sorts in an attempt to get a final leg-up on their competition, it’s definitely possible that he’d relent and make a conference rival that much better. I just don’t find that to be a very likely outcome.
But we really don’t know with any certainty how any of this will play out. While it’s looking more and more like Kesler will be moved by March 5th, it’s also just as likely that the team will hang onto him and revisit this around the Draft. Or patch things up, and move forward with him still on the roster. After all, it’s not like we’ve never seen a star player look like he was headed out the door, only to have the script flipped.