Anthony Duclair, New York Rangers

Anthony Duclair Could Be Rangers’ Latest RW Solution

The New York Rangers continued to pile up the points when they faced the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 3 – and also witnessed an excellent audition from a possible trade target for a few months from now.

Not lost in the wild nature of the Blueshirts’ 6-5 nail-biting home win over the Sharks, which pushed their record to an eye-popping 18-4-1, was the play of San Jose right wing Anthony Duclair, the once and perhaps future Ranger.

Anthony Duclair San Jose Sharks
Sharks forward Anthony Duclair (Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images)

Duclair opened the scoring at 3:50 of the first period, taking a stretch pass at the Rangers’ blue line and breaking in alone before badly beating Jonathan Quick for his sixth goal of the season. The play stunned the Madison Square Garden crowd and the Blueshirts before logic prevailed and the team with the NHL’s best record outlasted the one with the worst.

The Rangers’ third-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft has been around quite a bit since being traded to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Keith Yandle as part of a multi-asset deal March 1, 2015. Duclair is on his sixth team since leaving Broadway, having been dealt to the rebuilding Sharks by the Florida Panthers for the final season of his three-year, $9 million contract July 1.

Rangers’ Former Prospect Is Finally Living up to His Promise

However, the attributes that made Duclair highly-regarded within the Rangers organization – then-coach Alain Vigneault was notably bullish on his potential – have finally emerged in full over the past several seasons, leading to a resurgent career for the 28-year-old. Duclair totaled 64 goals and 66 assists from 2019-22 for the Ottawa Senators and Panthers. Playing only 20 regular-season games due to injury last season, Duclair nonetheless was a factor in Florida’s shocking run to the Stanley Cup Final, recording four goals and seven assists in 20 games.

The skills that made Duclair, who also rang a shot off the crossbar behind Quick in the Dec. 3 defeat, an appealing prospect to the Rangers eight years ago are the same ones that make him so appealing as a potential trade deadline pickup now – his speed and shooter’s mentality are in demand for a Blueshirts team that has struggled with a dearth of right-wing options for years.

Duclair with the Rangers in November 2014 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Acquiring Duclair would amount to the latest patch job at that spot for general manager Chris Drury, who despite presiding over a Stanley Cup contender in his two years and seven months on the job, is still paying for the ill-advised trade of right wing Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues in July 2021. Drury needed to add pending unrestricted free agents Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp to plug the gaping top-six holes on the right side at the 2022 trade deadline, and both players were instrumental in the club’s push to the Eastern Conference Final.

Last season, it was UFAs Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, the latter of which turned into an all-consuming pursuit until Drury finally acquired him in late February – to less-than-satisfying results, of course. The Rangers lost in the first round of the playoffs, both players signed elsewhere over the summer, and Drury went back to trying to solve what’s become a chronic problem.

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Alexis Lafreniere’s ascendance since being moved to right wing has been one of the key reasons for this season’s push to the top of the NHL standings, but his draft lottery twin Kaapo Kakko had been largely ineffective offensively before suffering an injury Nov. 27 that is expected to keep him out for a while. Blake Wheeler, the 37-year-old former Winnipeg Jet, has been so-so at best since signing with the Rangers for one year and $800,000. Once again, the Blueshirts are facing major questions over their depth on the right as they pursue an elusive Stanley Cup.

Duclair looks like he’d be a perfect fit, and that’s in large part because of the Vatrano acquisition. A similar player to Duclair, “Frankie Rifle” proved to be exactly what the Rangers’ top-six duo of Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider needed when he slid seamlessly onto their line for the 2022 stretch run. Vatrano’s straight-line quickness and shoot-first approach lifted a pair of highly-skilled players who can sometimes fall into the bad habit of making too many passes. Vatrano had five goals and eight assists in 20 games that postseason as the Rangers advanced to within two games of the Cup Final.

Vatrano will probably be too expensive for the Blueshirts this season, having signed a three-year, $10.95 million contract with the Anaheim Ducks after that season – and the fact that he’s off to a scorching start with 14 goals this season would make him very expensive in trade capital even if his cap hit was considerably lower. As impressively deep as their current roster looks, the Rangers haven’t exactly nailed it when it comes to right-wing personnel decisions over the past few seasons.

Duclair’s Salary-Cap Hit Makes Him More Appealing as Trade Target

That’s water under the bridge. Old friend Duclair, as it turns out, doesn’t have to be. He represents a tantalizing option to be this season’s duct-taping of the right side of the forward corps, not just because his skills are needed in the Rangers’ top six, but because his cap hit can in theory be made to work for a team that will have little salary room to maneuver leading into the March 1 deadline. The mere prospect of teaming him with Kreider and Zibanejad is an exciting thought.

The Blueshirts weren’t going to have much room to work with even if everyone stayed healthy, allowing for constant accrual of deadline space. The Rangers have instead been dipping into LTIR since the beginning of November, when Adam Fox went down with a lower-body injury. Kakko joined the list as well, and center Filip Chytil was also moved to LTIR with a suspected concussion. Fox is back, but there is no timetable for either of the latter two to return.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
Kaapo Kakko’s injury and ineffectiveness have left the Rangers thin at right wing again (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Teams don’t accrue space while they’re using LTIR, and with Kakko expected to spend extended time on the list, the Rangers are probably going to struggle to make a significant acquisition in the spring. At a $3 million cap hit, though, Duclair is a realistic target, given the Sharks’ ability to easily retain half of the contract.

The Rangers needing San Jose to do so in a theoretical trade could inflate the price for Duclair, which could be driven even higher by other suitors. The Blueshirts are hardly going to be the only team interested in a speedy scoring forward who’s playoff-tested after last season’s strong showing in the tournament.

Related: Rangers Should Move Jimmy Vesey to the First Line

How much would the Rangers be willing to pay to bring Duclair full circle? It will likely depend on a combination of factors – whether Duclair has a productive season (he’s at six goals and three assists in 22 games for the woeful Sharks), whether Kakko returns and is effective, the level of interest from other teams. Perhaps the Blueshirts’ needs will be greater at center given Chytil’s injury issues, or Drury could decide that a big grinding forward for the playoffs is the higher priority.

Adding Duclair, however, will be tempting no matter what. A first-round pick for him would seem steep, but it’s of course possible that could end up being the price tag. If the Rangers remain near the top of the league and appear primed for a run at a championship, Duclair could be the perfect fit, both from the standpoint of filling a hole and being a solution the club could afford – at least salary cap-wise.

Chris Drury New York Rangers
Chris Drury will need to find the Rangers help on the right side for the third straight season (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For now, Drury will watch and wait, planning ahead for his latest potential short-term fix at right wing – perhaps with Duclair squarely in mind.

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