On Thursday afternoon the Carolina Hurricanes announced that they had traded center Victor Rask to the Minnesota Wild for wing Nino Niederreiter.
At a basic level, the trade was a ‘change of scenery’ type swap of two mid-priced players who were underperforming relative to their salary and currently struggling to find a role with their current teams.
Less than two years ago, Victor Rask was signed to a six-year contract for $4 million per year. When signed, Rask was 22 years old and coming off of a 21-goal, 48-point season. Equally significantly, at the time he seemed to be still on the rise. That 48-point season was only his second in the NHL and was a nice step up from the 33 points that he scored as a rookie the year before. But the 2016-17 saw him plateau with a similar 45 points and five fewer goals. Then the 2017-18 season saw Rask take a significant step backwards especially in the first half of the season. When the dust settled on the 2017-18 season, Rask had rebounded enough late to offer some hope but was very clearly headed into the 2018-19 season needing to find a higher gear. With Sebastian Aho moving to center, Jordan Staal anchored in the second slot and the team hoping that Martin Necas would be ready for the NHL, Rask slotted as a depth forward ideally to end up in the C4 slot and hopefully rebound and play his way up from there. But then a kitchen accident delayed the start of his 2018-19 season. Now 26 games deep into the season, Rask has mustered only six scoring points and has not done much to boost his standing from where he left off last season. With Lucas Wallmark acclimating well at the NHL level and filling a similar role and Clark Bishop and Greg McKegg proving capable of filling in, Victor Rask probably slots as a healthy extra and fifth center when Jordan Staal returns to the lineup. If one looks out a couple years, the team would ideally like to add another more scoring-oriented center to the mix which also makes Rask not a great fit looking forward.
When one considers Rask’s current role, the team’s needs and the hoped for road map going forward, Rask has very much become a spare part whose $4 million yearly salary was too high for where he fit.
As such, the Hurricanes had every incentive to move Rask if for no other reason than to free up his salary.
Nino Niederreiter in many ways is the Minnesota equivalent of Rask. After the New York Islanders who drafted him #5 overall decided to part ways early after a ‘meh’ rookie season, Niederreiter developed gradually with the Wild posting 36, 37 and 43 points before a well-timed breakout season that saw him net 25 goals and 57 points in a contract year. Like Rask, he was a rising young player who seemed to have the best ahead, and he leveraged that trajectory to sign a five-year contract at $5.25 million per year. Then like Rask, he seemed to peak and then fade a bit. In the first year of his new contract in 2017-18, Niederreiter posted 32 points in 63 games. Thus far in 2018-19, his production has been similar at 23 points in 46 games. As such, he had fallen out of grace with the Wild and like Rask was on the trading block.
But like Rask, Niederreiter is an established NHLer with a useful skill set if he can regain the upward trajectory that he had only a couple years ago.
In terms of skill set, Niederreiter is different from Rask in a few key ways. Niederreiter is a wing not a center, and whereas Rask’s strength is his balanced two-way play with a bit less scoring, Niederreiter’s game is more that of a finishing, scoring power forward. Niederreiter is a big body at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 218 pounds, but he also skates well for his size and has decent hands and finishing ability. In short, the good version of Niederreiter is a prototypical scoring power forward who can complement skill players somewhat similar to Micheal Ferland.
The swap of skill sets
As noted above, the biggest factor in this trade is the change of scenery for both players. Both teams are hoping that they traded a player who was fading and not working out for one who will be rejuvenated and catch a spark with a new team.
But past that, Niederreiter much more fits what the Hurricanes need. The team needs a few more players who can put the puck in the net. As a player who has scored 20 or more goals at the NHL level three times and would have done the same with a full season in 2017-18, Niederreiter has the potential to slot into the Hurricanes top 6 forwards and add size and another scorer. On the other hand, even the good version of Rask was a redundant skill set as a scoring-lite, two-way center. Niederreiter potentially brings more of the scoring from the wing that the Canes need.
Another factor that made this doable was the fact that the two players contracts line up reasonably well. Both players are signed for three more seasons after which each will become an unrestricted free agent. The Hurricanes will take on an additional $1.25 salary cap hit with Niederreiter’s cap hit of $5.25 million compared to Rask’s $4 million. But the difference is modest, and I still view this as largely a move to get rid of Rask’s contract even if the Canes received a similar salary in return.
My initial grade
I like the trade. Rask had been straying farther and farther from what the team hoped to get when he was re-signed for six years. Also significant is the fact that even the good version of Victor Rask is not so much what the Hurricanes need. Ideally, the team needs to either develop (Martin Necas) or trade for another playmaking/scoring-centric center to boost the offense. Even the good version of Rask is not that type of player. And as a capable two-way center with only middle-ish scoring capability Rask has increasingly become redundant. Jordan Staal is the premium version of a defense-leaning shutdown center who is light on scoring. And the emergence of Lucas Wallmark adds another center of this type who arguably could have scoring upside as he grows past his rookie season. On top of that, the Hurricanes have recently received serviceable or better center play from AHL call ups Clark Bishop and Greg McKegg. When Staal returns from injury, one could make a reasonable case that Rask is the team’s sixth center (Aho, Staal, Wallmark, Bishop, McKegg). That does not work well with a $4 million salary.
So trading Rask without eating salary or paying draft picks to unload him was arguably a positive in itself.
As a similar player trying to re-find a higher gear, Niederreiter is not a sure thing. And the $5.25 million salary for a hopefully/maybe has its own risks. But I think the Hurricanes did well getting a player with a high ceiling and a better fit for what they need.
There are a couple other angles to this deal including Micheal Ferland’s situation. My hope is to include those in a part 2 for the Daily Cup of Joe for Friday.
What say you Canes fans?
What do you think about this deal?