With the All-Star break fully in the rearview, the New York Rangers have just 13 games to determine their NHL Trade Deadline fate. Playoff contention may be on the minds of the players, but they’ll have to scale an 11-point gap to even compete for a wild card position. Only the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils sit below the Rangers in the Eastern Conference. Expectations of playoffs have quickly tapered from realistic to farfetched as the All-Star break passes.
With that in mind, the Rangers brass are seemingly staying pat to their original message when the rebuild was announced; adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. Jesper Fast, while being a fan favorite and versatile forward, no longer fits the bill of the Rangers rebuild.
Fast is one of eight pending free agents on the Rangers roster. Chris Kreider and Alexandar Georgiev have been the most likely candidates for a trade as the deadline approaches as both are on expiring contracts and their roles on the team are quickly dwindling. Fast wouldn’t garner the same attention as either of those two, but his value may never be higher considering his current cap hit and recent play. Keeping Fast seems more likely to result in regret than staying pat to the rebuild’s original message.
The Rangers pending free agents are as follows: Alexandar Georgiev, Chris Kreider, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux, Ryan Strome, Micheal Haley, Greg McKegg and Fast. Assuming the salary cap increased to $82.5 million and the Rangers bring up Igor Shesterkin, Libor Hajek and Vitali Kravtsov full-time, that’d leave them with a little under $16 million to deviate between those eight. With Kreider and Georgiev likely getting dealt, the number shrinks to six.
DeAngelo, Strome, and Lemieux are all restricted free agents, giving the Rangers some leverage in negotiations. Should they keep all three, Strome and DeAngelo are both due for significant AAV increases while Lemieux should find himself with a decent upgrade in both term and cap hit. Those three will likely take up most of the Rangers’ potential cap space, leaving Fast as the odd man out, especially since he’s due for an increased cap hit as well.
Fortunately for Fast, the Rangers are scarce at wing for right now. Kaapo Kakko is young and inexperienced, Brendan Smith is a defenseman turned forward, and Lemieux had been injured as of late. That led to increased ice time in the top six for Fast, where he was largely inconsistent.
In the ten games that Lemieux missed, Fast solidified a spot with Strome and Artemi Panarin. Over that span, he logged two goals and six goals for a .80 point-per-game average. Quite the jump from his 13 points in the prior 35 games and .37 points-per-game but that’ll happen when playing with the Rangers top two leaders in scoring. Realistically, the Rangers have players in their system that are more than capable of filling Fast’s role as a third to the dynamic duo of Panarin and Strome.
A 28-year-old depth forward is extremely replaceable for a rebuilding squad, whether internally or through low-cost free agents. Considering Pavel Buchnevich’s ability to play either wing, Kakko developing nicely, Kravtsov making leaps in the AHL, and Lemieux becoming quite the two-way forward, Fast’s role on the right side quickly diminishes. If the Rangers were to re-sign McKegg to another low-cost contract, he could even aid in the hole left on the penalty kill.
Fast’s Inflated Value
Should the Rangers pass on trading Fast at the deadline, they’ll risk either two options; he’ll walk in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent or sign an extension of a larger cap hit and term. Bringing Fast back at a cost-friendly deal is the obvious option, but the recent contract trends indicate that Fast is due for quite a raise from his current AAV of $1.85 million. Even if it’s as small as doubling his current cap hit, the impact that’d have on negotiations with Strome, DeAngelo or Lemieux could be monumental.
Look no further than the Edmonton Oilers’ Zack Kassian and his shiny new contract extension with a $3.2 million cap hit for the next four years. Fast and Kassian have somewhat similar play styles, both emphasize responsibility without the puck via physicality. Both have also been largely used as a depth player until recent years. Kassian gets to reap the benefits of playing with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl while Fast has seen time with Panarin, Strome and Mika Zibanejad.
In the 2019-20 season, Kassian owns a slight offensive edge. His 13 goals and 15 assists eclipse Fast’s eight goals and 13 assists. However, Fast closes the gap with his play on the penalty kill (PK). He has been amongst the top three Rangers forwards in PK time-on-ice per game since the 2015-16 season. This season, he leads all Rangers forwards with nearly 122 minutes on the PK.
Fast will likely be asking for a cap hit around where Kassian signed, which wouldn’t be ideal but not the end of the world for the Rangers. Where the regret can truly begin to manifest is the term of the contract. At 28-years-old, Fast is debatably nearing the end of his prime and has been slowly regressing. His time on ice has been increasing, particularly in 2019-20, yet he’s failed to find much consistent success on offense.
Despite the regression, Fast’s trade value continues to grow as the season progresses. The combination of his cheap cap hit, experience in the playoffs (14 PTS in 39 GP) and proven versatility in the lineup makes him a quintessential depth addition for any contender. Just last season, former Ranger Carl Hagelin, was able to garner a third-round and conditional sixth-round pick at the trade deadline. There’s plenty of reason to believe that a Fast trade could have a similar, if not larger, return. For a rebuilding franchise that’s still years from contending, acquiring draft picks is far more valuable than giving an aging depth forward a significant pay raise contract.
In seven years with the Rangers, Fast has evolved from a relatively unknown sixth-round pick out of the SHL into a picture-perfect example of a depth two-way winger. Perennially nicknamed “Quickie” upon his emergence in the lineup, he slowly built into a fan favorite, even if he would often go underappreciated. Unfortunately, rebuilds often mean cutting ties with long-time players. Fast has served well as a leader in a young locker room, but his role in the rebuild has quickly diminished to nothing more than a potential trade deadline asset.