For the New York Rangers and Chris Kreider, decision time has just about arrived.
General manager Jeff Gorton and the front office have at long last reached that point, the one at which they’ll need to decide on how to proceed with their uber-talented forward whose promise has proved impossible to give up on, but who hasn’t shown nearly enough of it in seven years on Broadway to have already been locked up with a long-term extension.
The Blueshirts can’t wait any longer. With one year at a below-market $4.625 million remaining on his contract, the club has little choice but to decide on a course of action or have several of them at the ready going into 2019-20. None of those options, of course, are letting the soon-to-be 28-year-old Kreider play out the 2019-20 season and hoping to re-sign him as a free agent.
While it’s possible management has made up its mind on how to proceed, Kreider’s enigmatic nature has more likely rendered the decision as murky as it’s been over the past few seasons. There’s going to be at least a partial leap of faith involved here, one that will naturally invoke abundant second-guessing amongst fans and general managers around the NHL.
Amid a rebuild that’s led to wholesale personnel changes since the beginning of the process last February and will continue into this offseason, the fate of one of the longest-tenured Rangers will be front and center for Gorton and co. with the draft approaching.
There are three roads the Rangers can go down with the big forward:
Trade Kreider for More Future Assets
This was probably considered the least likely approach Feb. 24, when Kreider scored his 26th goal of the season in the Rangers’ 62nd game of 2018-19, a 6-5 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. The first 30-goal effort of Kreider’s seven-year career seemed all but assured – and a clear sign that the player who has tantalized the Rangers with his (occasional) ability to dominate a game with power, size and speed was finally ready to take the next step toward stardom.
Instead, Kreider scored two goals over the final 20 games, managing only to tie his career-best, set in 2016-17. He revealed later that he suffered a hamstring injury against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 27 that he said lingered over the final quarter of the season.
Every player gets injured, of course. For the 19th-overall pick in the 2009 Draft, though, the timing couldn’t have been worse. It’s difficult to completely discount the notion that while the injury might have played a factor, the late-season disappearance wasn’t anything different than similar stretches of near-anonymity on ice that have plagued Kreider in the past.
Throughout his Rangers career, Kreider has delivered breathtaking efforts in which he’s looked unstoppable, too strong and fast and skilled through the middle and down low in the offensive zone for him to become anything but a franchise forward.
Those stretches have always been followed by longer ones in which his name is hardly called, at times as if he’s not in the lineup. The reasons for it remain mostly a mystery, even seven years in.
So is this when the Rangers finally pull the plug? Trade a still-tantalizing, still-youngish talent, perhaps paired with one of their first-round picks, to the Winnipeg Jets for desperately needed right-side defenseman Jacob Trouba? Kreider’s value may never be higher, and it certainly won’t be if he regresses next season.
If a trade happens, there’s a good chance it occurs at the June 21-22 draft. And it should hardly come as a shock.
Commit to Kreider Long-Term
A 28-goal effort in a season in which he played the last 20 games with a leg injury? That’s the glass half-full viewpoint, and it’s not necessarily built on hope and delusion. Remember 2017-18, when Kreider returned in late February from a two-month absence after surgery to alleviate a blood clot in his arm and fix two fused ribs that had contributed to its formation. His health improved, weight lowered and perspective on life and hockey changed, he delivered five goals and 10 assists in the final 21 games that featured a number of eye-opening performances.
That of course extended into this season, as he was on his way to a career effort before the final 20 contests. Is it folly for team management to disregard that extended run of production because of a now-revealed injury?
If the answer club officials arrive at is yes, Gorton had better be sure. Going all-in on Kreider could mean a six-year contract at $6-7 million per that will take him into his mid-30s. Are the Rangers reasonably certain he’ll continue to trend upward? There are no guarantees. Again, the injury timing for Kreider this season couldn’t have been worse given his career pattern.
“Maybe you and I look at it differently, but I look at this as a guy trying to gut it out through an injury, which is part of being a professional hockey player,” Kreider said last month. “I didn’t do as well or contribute as much as I thought I could and while I don’t think I hurt the team, I didn’t help, either, so I probably shouldn’t have played.
“So as far as management’s evaluation, I’m honestly not worried about this stretch. Plus, it’s a whole season, right?”
This possibility is another one that could be resolved by draft day, and almost certainly won’t bleed into next season. Which brings us to Option No. 3 …
Keep Kreider into 2019-20, Trade Him at the Deadline
This seems the least likely course of action. While the reward could be a good one in the form of at least another first-round pick should Kreider turn in a season equal to or better to this one, the Rangers might also be left second-guessing themselves for not signing him to an extension before Kreider would have the leverage due to his impending unrestricted free agency.
If he doesn’t perform as well as this past season, the Rangers will have lost leverage on the trade market, having failed to deal him this offseason when his value would have been ostensibly higher.
Bet on the Rangers choosing Options 1 or 2, and soon. Either way, it’s certain to be a difficult call. Memories such as his four-point, runaway-freight-train performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins in March 2018 remain fresh – as do the myriad stretches of invisibility in which it seems Kreider will never fully figure it out.
With 10 draft picks in June, more talented young forwards set to arrive next season and the possibility of signing star free agent Artemi Panarin on July 1, change continues to swirl around the Rangers. Will Kreider prove to be an anchor through it all, with management cementing his status as a core long-term Blueshirt? Or will he go the way of so many of his now-departed teammates, players from a recently concluded era of playoff contention that weren’t seen as part of the future?
In all likelihood, we’re on the verge of finally having that answer.