As what usually happens as teams approach training camps, there will be players jockeying for their best chances to earn NHL jobs. Some enter camp ready to compete, others see franchise cornerstones and top young assets as their competition. The latter is the case for New York Rangers defenceman Nils Lundkvist.
“The Post has learned that general manager Chris Drury has been working with Lundkvist’s agent, Claude Lemieux, in order to effect a trade to an organization in which the Swede would have a better opportunity to challenge for a top-four spot and role as a power-play quarterback.”– Larry Brooks (From “Rangers trying to trade frustrated Nils Lundkvist”, New York Post, 1 Sep 2022)
In return for the 5-foot-10, 187-pound right-handed defender, the Rangers will be looking to acquire something of value in return. They aren’t under pressure to make a move to fill an immediate need, or because they are concerned they would lose him as an unrestricted free agent, as he is under contract for two more seasons at $925,000. General manager (GM) Chris Drury would only be moving him out as a favour for the player. While helping the player to advance their career elsewhere would be a “player friendly” method of management, it still would only occur if the return in a trade helps the Rangers as well. To that end, the Montreal Canadiens are a good trading partner as they have assets that could help Drury, but also require what Lundkvist can bring to a team.
Head coach Martin St. Louis wants to install a fast-paced, puck-possession style of game for the Canadiens. In that style, the defence would play a significant role in moving the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and generating the transition game. Currently, the blue line itself is in a transitional period as the team continues its rebuild. Joel Edmundson, Chris Wideman and David Savard are the returning veterans who will anchor it. Savard will play a stay-at-home depth role, while the others will be relied upon heavily to add mobility. However, neither is seen as anything more than capable of a bottom-four role.
The Canadiens will also have several young, yet inexperienced defenders that will begin to be rotated into the lineup throughout the upcoming season. Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris Justin Barron, and possibly several others will be given NHL experience to help their development. However, only Barron is right-handed, and the Habs prospect system is lacking in defenders that can play that side of the blue line. This only highlights the franchise’s clear need for additional right-handed defenders. Especially those who are mobile and capable of moving the puck quickly, but also add some power play (PP) quarterbacking abilities.
This season’s approach, with a view to individual development and not necessarily building a roster that has a better opportunity to win, will lead to mistakes by the youth, and some of those mistakes will likely lead directly to losses. That being said, it’s a necessary growing pain in a rebuild. What it also means is that the coaching staff can focus on building their offensive games to take advantage of their mobility and individual offensive skill sets. This is a scenario that would allow Montreal to benefit from any trade for Lundkvist as they can insert him into a top-four role and allow him to develop without any pressure from the expectation to win games now. Also having the former Ranger GM who drafted the young defender, Canadiens’ current executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, on hand could also add some interest in acquiring the young puck mover.
Lundkvist Fits Canadiens’ Needs
Lundkvist was drafted 28th overall in 2018 by the Rangers who used their third first-round pick to select him. He plays the modern style of defence that relies heavily on skating skill, mobility and quick puck movement to defend and transition to offence. In his case, he is an offence-first player that has an excellent passing game, strong and accurate shot and an ability to lead a PP. However, his lack of size and strength will need to be addressed by pairing him with a larger, stronger partner who can focus on the defensive side of the game. He showed flashes that he can be a quality offensive defenseman in their top-four and on the PP last season with the Rangers. At only 22 years old, he has time to add some strength and polish his overall game, but he will need to do that at the NHL level.
Normally, a player that has Lundkvist’s pedigree wouldn’t be available on a team entering their Stanley Cup window. The only reason why he would want to have a trade facilitated, or that the Rangers would entertain a trade is because of roster space and construction. It essentially falls to the fact that Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, and Braden Schneider have cemented themselves as the right side of the Rangers’ top six, and are all under long-term contracts, in leadership roles, or on an inexpensive entry-level contract.
With that, Lundkvist is by far their best NHL-ready asset that can be used in a trade that wouldn’t impact the main roster. That being said, the Rangers will need to be offered quality in return to be convinced to move him. But there is pressure for Drury to act now as Lundkvist’s value is at its peak, and can be moved to address roster needs, particularly depth scoring and at center.
The Cost for the Canadiens
There is no secret that GM Kent Hughes is in search of a right-shot defenceman and has no shortage of depth scoring, even depth at center, that could be of interest to Drury in a deal. While many Habs fans would be throwing out names such as Mike Hoffman, Evgeni Dadonov or even Christian Dvorak as trade options, the Rangers’ salary cap space of only $1 million for 2022-23 would be far too little to take on those contracts without Hughes either retaining salary – which is highly unlikely – or taking on another contract in return.
Drury could also request a first-round selection, yet it is more likely that the Rangers would want an inexpensive depth defender to use as a seventh defenseman, but also a young forward prospect that they could develop. There is a long list in the Habs’ system that could be packaged in a deal, Jesse Ylonen and Sean Farrell, but one name that could be of value from the Rangers’ point of view is Jan Mysak.
After an excellent showing at the 2022 World Junior Championship leading Czechia in scoring, as well as to a fourth-place finish, Mysak has taken a big step forward in his development. The Czech forward has improved in every aspect of his game, positioning, shot, skating, and decision-making, all without sacrificing his offensive production. His play this past calendar year has shown that he’s ready for the next challenge, and in the Rangers’ system, that could include a lengthy call-up to the NHL roster.
If the rumor is true, Lundqvist’s agent, former Canadiens forward Claude Lemieux, will be looking to facilitate a trade for his client to provide him a fresh start prior to training camp. There are several reasons that the two teams are a logical fit in a trade scenario. Between the connection to Gorton as the GM that drafted the player, the needs for Montreal to find a right-handed puck mover, the Rangers need for forward depth, all point to the Canadiens are a near-perfect fit as a trade partner.