The Rangers have decided the time is now to speed up their rebuild.
After spending the last 16 months patiently dealing away veterans and acquiring assets, general manager Jeff Gorton moved aggressively to upgrade the Blueshirts’ roster Monday night when he traded for restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and the 20th pick overall in Friday’s NHL Draft, a pick that originally belonged to Winnipeg and was acquired by the Rangers in the Kevin Hayes deal.
“He’s a big defenseman; he’s 25 years old; he can play against the best players; he has offense; he kills penalties, he’s in the prime of his career,’’ Gorton said on a late-night conference call with reporters. “So, the opportunity for a player like that to become available, it doesn’t happen all the time. And, you know, we jumped on it.’’
The 6-3, 202-pound Trouba, 25, spent six seasons in Winnipeg, where he developed into a bona fide star. He played in all 82 games for the Jets in 2018-19, scoring eight goals with 42 assists for 50 points, setting career highs in games played, assists and points. He has played in 408 games, compiling 42 goals and 137 assists, for 179 points, in his career. He averaged 22:53 in ice time in 2018-19, second-most on the team.
A righthanded shot, Trouba immediately becomes the Rangers’ No. 1 defenseman [He’s going to play big minutes,’’ Gorton said], and the Rangers will no doubt quickly sign him to a contract. Gorton said he had spoken to Trouba and his agent, but hadn’t talked contract yet. He said he expects negotiations to begin “over the next couple days,’’ and said he has an idea what he thinks it will take to reach an agreement. The Rochester, Michigan, native played on a one-year deal last season at $5.5 million, and likely will command upward of $7 million per on a long-term deal.
The deal is the biggest move so far of what figures to be an action-packed summer for the Rangers. The offseason started with the Blueshirts moving up in the NHL Draft Lottery to the No. 2 selection overall, which will give them the opportunity to draft either American Jack Hughes or Finn Kaapo Kakko, the two biggest prizes available Friday in Vancouver. Then, Gorton traded with the Carolina Hurricanes to acquire defenseman Adam Fox, and also signed several European additions – goaltender Igor Shesterkin and 2018 first-round pick Vitaly Kravtsov, along with defensemen Yegor Rykov and Tarmo Reunanen.
Gorton is expected to be active in the chase for free agents beginning July 1, with Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin likely to be a prime target.
Pionk, 23, played 101 games over the past two seasons with the Rangers, scoring seven goals, with 33 assists for 40 points. A righthanded shot, like Trouba, he also is a restricted free agent.