One thing Jack Eichel knew in approaching Tuesday’s match at the Garden against the Rangers is that he would not be serenaded by 18,000 fans with a “We Don’t Want You!” chant, the way Rick Nash was when he came to town with the Blue Jackets eight days ahead of the 2011-12 deadline and scored the tying goal with 1:33 remaining in regulation before Derek Stepan won it in overtime for the good guys.
(How would Eichel know that? Well, only 1,800 fans would be in the building for this one.)
Back in the day, Big 61 was the shiny apple of the Rangers’ eye, the winger perceived by then general manager Glen Sather as the missing link to the team’s Stanley Cup aspirations. It had been headline-generating stuff, with the Blueshirts willing to part with a pretty extensive package in order to add the winger to the first-place team’s lineup.
The Rangers, as reported at the time, offered Brandon Dubinsky, 2011 first-rounder J.T. Miller, Tim Erixon, Christian Thomas and the 2012 first-round selection in exchange for Nash, who owned a no-trade clause and could therefore pick his destination after he’d asked out of the perennial rebuild in Columbus.
But the Jackets’ GM at the time, Scott Howson, was greedy. He wanted more. Indeed, he asked for either Ryan McDonagh or Michael Del Zotto, plus Stepan or Carl Hagelin, plus the rights to B.C. junior Chris Kreider, plus Dubinsky, plus a first-rounder.
It was relatively easy for the Rangers to reject that outrageous demand. The fans were not necessarily opposed to acquiring Nash, per se, but wanted no part of breaking up the Black-and-Blueshirts squad that had emerged as the surprise team in the NHL. (Surprise; then head coach John Tortorella didn’t want to break up the team, either.)
The Rangers went to the conference finals before being upset in six games by the Devils. Months later, of course, Sather got his man (and a third rounder that would become Pavel Buchnevich) for the package of Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Erixon and a first-rounder that represented the equivalent of the pre-deadline offer.
Fast forward through multiple concussions, a Presidents’ Trophy, a trip to the Cup final and disappointing playoff production from Nash before his 2018 deadline trade to the Bruins, and nine years later, Eichel is the shiny apple of the Rangers’ eye.
The center wants out as he and his perpetually downtrodden Sabres make their way into Manhattan in the midst of what surely appears their 10th straight season out of the playoffs and sixth in a row since Eichel was selected second overall behind Connor McDavid in the 2015 draft. Buffalo first-year GM Kevyn Adams may not be in a hurry to accommodate Eichel.
But when it gets real, the Rangers will be at the front of the line of suitors whether preceding the April 12 deadline or during the offseason. It is very Ranger-ish to hunt down shiny objects, but there is a difference here. Eichel would not be superfluous. He would not be a luxury item. He is needed. He is also 24 years old. No Marcel Dionne, here.
Mika Zibanejad’s mysterious demise has created urgency for the Blueshirts to address their issues down the middle. It is no longer about the viability of Ryan Strome as the long-term second-line center. It is no longer about tending to depth issues through the organization. Rather, it is about the first-line spot the hierarchy thought settled with Zibanejad’s emergence the last two seasons.
Of course there was last year’s insane finish that produced a 41-goal, 75-point season in what became a 70-game schedule in which Zibanejad played 57 contests. That bolstered Zibanejad’s credentials as an upper-echelon center. Over the last two years, the 27-year-old Swede collected 149 points (71-78), 20th-best in the NHL overall.
But this year? Well, through Monday, 166 forwards had been on the ice for at least 235:00 at five-on-five, according to NaturalStattrick.com. Zibanejad was 166th and last in production, with one point (an assist) in 237:10. Zibanejad, of course, has one more year on his contract before he can become a free agent following 2021-22. It would seem impossible for the Rangers to extend him over the summer.
This creates the urgent need for a first-line center. Now, you might note that Eichel is 149th among qualified forwards in five-on-five production with five points (1-4), but that is largely a product of organizational dysfunction as much any deficit in his game. No one questions his status as a stud.
The Rangers would have to pay up for Eichel, who has another five years remaining on a deal that presents a fixed cost of $10 million per, no doubt about that. It is almost impossible to conjure a scenario under which the Blueshirts could fit the B.U. product — who played for David Quinn — under the cap unless Zibanejad (with a no-move clause) is part of the package going the other way. But the summer is coming and the possibilities will be endless, albeit expensive. Nash-like expensive.
On Tuesday, 1,800 fans might even have chanted, “Yes, We Want You! Yes, We Need You!”