The Rangers wanted an accelerated rebuild, and they put the pedal to the metal in the early days of the off-season. New York fast-tracked its makeover with a pair of in-their-prime veterans: Jacob Trouba, obtained in a trade with Winnipeg in mid-June, and Artemi Panarin, signed as the top free agent on the UFA market.
The solid, all-around Trouba stabilizes the defense corps, while the sublimely skilled Panarin was brought in to spark the offense. “It’s a perfect fit,” said Rangers president John Davidson on Panarin, who agreed to a seven-year, $81.5-million deal. “He’s only 27, he’s averaged (80 points) over the last four seasons, and he’s healthy. We know he wants to be here in New York, specifically with the Rangers.”
Once the NHL’s legal tampering period began following the draft, it became abundantly clear to the Rangers that Panarin wanted to come to New York. “In talking to us, he talked about how he wants to win,” Davidson said. “He actually talked about Mark Messier and what Messier did with the Rangers (winning the Stanley Cup in 1994) to get into the winning part of the business. I knew Artemi very, very well. Our people knew him as a player but didn’t know him as a person.”
Davidson was familiar with Panarin from their time together in Columbus, where Davidson served as Blue Jackets president for seven years before joining the Rangers in May. Davidson recounted a story about Panarin’s childhood in Russia, where he was primarily raised by his grandparents and how his skates were often the wrong size, forcing him to wear extra pairs of socks in order to make them fit. Davidson believes that helped to make Panarin such a great skater.
But beyond Panarin’s upbringing and skating is his ability to make those around him better. “We have some young Russian players coming into pro hockey here, so I think it’ll be positive,” said Rangers GM Jeff Gorton. “He’s a guy who has an infectious personality, he makes players better, and he’s going to help us in a lot of ways with a lot of different players. His skill, his age, his ability to make people better, the fact that he makes plays. He’s a goal-scorer and a playmaker, a power-play driver, puck-possession driver. I think his age, his background, the fact we feel like he’s got a lot of years left, the ability to make everybody better. There’s so much that goes into that, but for us he was the No. 1 guy.”
And while Panarin gets to be the No. 1 guy up front, Trouba will attempt to fill that role on the back end. “They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba, who cost New York defenseman Neal Pionk and the 20th overall pick in the draft. “They treat the players first-class, it’s a very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York, so you’ve got a big stage, and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”
Trouba, a bona fide top-pairing defender, immediately upgrades the right side of New York’s blueline. He’s mobile, he’s got size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), he matches up against opponents’ best players, and he can play in any situation. And he’s got offense, too – Trouba finished 2018-19 tied for the ninth-most assists among defensemen (42) and the 13th-most points (50).
Perhaps nobody is happier to see Trouba on Broadway than his longtime friend and now teammate, Brady Skjei, who said Trouba FaceTimed him shortly after getting the call that he had been traded. “He just said, ‘What’s up, teammate?’ ” Skjei said. “We were both really pumped on the call, a few yells of ‘Let’s go!’ We were both thrilled.”
The reunion was a long time coming for Skjei and Trouba, teammates in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2010 to 2012. “I’ve had a great relationship with Brady for a long time,” Trouba said. “When he was in Winnipeg, we’d go to dinner, and I’d see him when I’d come to New York the last couple of years. We’ve always been close.”
That type of friendship will come in handy while Trouba adjusts to his new home. Although, there probably won’t be much of an adjustment on the ice, as it’s a very real possibility Trouba and Skjei end up as partners on the Blueshirts’ blueline. But regardless of whether they find themselves on the ice together, the Rangers are getting an excellent player.
“A great trade by (Gorton),” said Rangers coach David Quinn. “(Trouba) fits perfectly in with what we’re doing. He’s 25. He’s had an awful lot of success. He had a great year last year. We think his best hockey is ahead of him. Obviously you look at the teams that have had success in the playoffs, teams that get to the Stanley Cup (final) and win the Cup, and it’s all about their (defensemen).
“Our sport is so driven by our defense, because you have the opportunity to get involved offensively, and there’s a lot that goes with that. It’s not just defending – it’s all these other opportunities. He’s a guy who can defend and add offensively, and those guys are hard to find.”
Trouba remains motivated to become even better. “I have more I can achieve, more I want to achieve, another level of my game that I think I can get to,” he said. “Overall, it was a good season. But I still don’t think I’ve shown everything yet.”
Trouba is also motivated off the ice. “My fiancee aspires to be a doctor, and that’s really important to me,” Trouba said. “We want to have a life together, and her career is just as important as my career. So, this is a pretty good situation for both of us. There are other goals in life. I want to be a husband and a father and all that stuff.”
it’s new york, so you’ve got a big stage, and they expect a lot out of their team – Jacob Trouba
Trouba is a restricted free agent, but it’s a good bet he and the Rangers hammer out a long-term deal this summer. He’s sure to make in excess of $7 million, which would put the New York blueline north of $31 million, second highest in the league behind San Jose.
He will be a force to be reckoned with in New York. “He can play in all situations, the power play, the penalty kill, against other teams’ top lines,” Skjei said. “He’s just an all-around, really good defenseman, and he’s been that same way since I’ve known him. He’s the kind of guy who can do it all.”
Added Gorton: “One of the things that we wanted to do is improve our defense. We feel like we’ve done that.”
Trouba bolsters the blueline. Panarin punches up the offense. Whether it’s enough to return the suddenly refreshed Rangers to the post-season remains to be seen, but the infusion of high-end talent can only mean good things for a team on the rebound.