Just last week, life in the hockey blogosphere was starting to get a bit boring. Things had slowed to a crawl on the free agent front and none of the big-name players on the trade block were heading anywhere. All there was to talk about was the absurdity of the NHL’s opening proposal to the NHLPA, the hilarity of the fake insider accounts on Twitter, and whether Shane Doan’s agent realized Doan could only play for one team.
Then suddenly, everything happened. The Flyers shocked everyone by signing a massive offer sheet with Shea Weber. The Pittsburgh Penguins fired their entire medical staff. Shane Doan began to visit teams that he’s actually interested in. And then, New York made a massive trade, acquiring Ichiro from the Seattle Mariners.
Oh, and the Rangers traded away Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a first round pick for Rick Nash. I guess that was also a big deal.
What I have found fascinating about the initial reaction to the trade is how little people think of Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Erixon. Everyone but Scott Howson and Oilers blog Copper & Blue seems to think that this was a steal of a deal for the Rangers and I saw several analysts scoffing at Howson not getting a top-six forward or top-four defenceman in return for Nash.
It seems like not that long ago Dubinsky, Anisimov, and Erixon were highly-regarded young players who were expected to fill exactly those roles. Things haven’t panned out exactly as planned for each of them, but all three are still young, talented, and far better than the reaction to this trade would indicate.
Dubinsky put up 40 points in his rookie season with the Blueshirts at the age of 21. With that kind of start to his professional career, he certainly looked like a future second-line center with the potential for more if he continued to improve. At the time, I saw people comparing him to Ryan Kesler. But where Kesler had Manny Malhotra come in to take on the defensive burden, enabling Kesler to take on a larger offensive role, Dubinsky took on a checking line role for the Rangers, playing on the third line, starting predominantly in the defensive zone, and facing tough competition.
Dubinsky’s critics will point to his career-low in points this past season, 34 after a career-high 54 in the season prior, but they miss the fact that Dubinsky started a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than in any season prior. The only players on the Rangers who started a higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone were Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust, and Brian Boyle. Incidentally, the only one of those players remaining is Boyle.
Despite being used in such a defensive role, Dubinsky had the third highest Corsi rate on the team, meaning he constantly pushed puck possession into the offensive zone, and did so better than the Ranger’s top offensive players like Richards and Gaborik. Make no mistake: despite his lower offensive output last season, Dubinsky is a very good hockey player who could potentially thrive given a more offensive role and, at 26, he should be entering the prime of his career.
Anisimov was expected to be a top-six forward as well, particularly after his superb sophomore season in the AHL where he posted 81 points in 80 games while scoring 37 goals. Those numbers did not immediately translate into NHL success, as he has scored goals in the mid-teens for the last three seasons. After scoring a career-high 44 points in 2010-11, he scored just 36 last season.
Where he has excelled is on the defensive side of the puck. While he hasn’t been placed in the same types of situations as Dubinsky, Anisimov has earned a reputation for strong defensive play and backs that up with his possession numbers. He had the fourth highest Corsi rate among Rangers’ forwards last season, behind Dubinsky.
That’s not to say that he was terrible offensively, since that’s not exactly the case. At even-strength, Anisimov was fourth on the Rangers in points per 60 minutes, right behind Gaborik, Hagelin, and Richards. He scored at a rate of 1.72 points per 60 minutes, similar to Rick Nash, who scored 1.89 points per 60 minutes. Anisimov is just 24 years old and has the offensive skill to produce bigger numbers given more ice time. In Columbus, he’s likely to get it.
Speaking of ice time, though, it’s worth noting that Dubinsky and Anisimov were 5th and 6th in time on ice per game for the Rangers last season. Judging strictly from ice time, both were top-six forwards.
Then there’s Tim Erixon, who’s just 21 years old and coming off his first season of professional hockey in North America. He’s a steady, two-way player who projects as a top-pairing defenceman in the NHL. Last year, The Hockey News had him ranked as the 15th best prospect in the NHL in their annual Future Watch edition. He was also ranked as the Calgary Flames’ best prospect and therein lies the perception problem.
Erixon refused to sign with the Flames, forcing a trade to the Rangers, the team his dad, Jan Erixon, played for in the 80′s and 90′s. He reportedly refused to sign because he didn’t want to start his North American career in the AHL. Karma’s been kicking him in the ass ever since, as he was sent down to the Connecticut Whale for the bulk of last season and now finds himself in Columbus playing for the worst team in the NHL.
Forcing a trade may put a black mark on his reputation, but Erixon is still a blue chip prospect. Considering his main concern was heading straight to the NHL, he’s likely far less enamoured with the Rangers now than he was then. Thing is, Erixon still put up 33 points for the Whale, tying with Brendan Bell for most points from a defenceman on the team. Erixon scored those points in just 52 games, compared to Bell’s 65. While the offensive side of the game isn’t his calling card, that’s solid production from a 20-year-old rookie.
Erixon appeared in 12 games for the Rangers, notching 2 assists while averaging just under 13 minutes per game. Tortorella, at least, doesn’t seem too high on Erixon, saying, “Erixon has potential, I haven’t seen it yet, to be a really good player.” Scouts, however, seem to agree that Erixon will be a minute-munching, complete defenceman, playing the type of simple, puck-moving style that has made Swedish defenceman very popular in the NHL.
If Erixon turns out like scouts project, he will be the top-four defenceman that people think Columbus didn’t get in this trade.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Columbus won this deal. Rick Nash is undoubtedly the best player involved in the trade and, as the saying goes, the team that gets the best player wins the trade. But will Nash still be the best player involved 6 years from now when he’s 36 and still making $7.8 million against the salary cap? I’m not so sure.
But to those who are saying that the Rangers won this trade hands down, I say that you don’t really know what the Rangers gave up. Dubinsky and Anisimov are very good two-way centers, a position that hasn’t typically been a strength for the Blue Jackets, and Erixon is a potential top-pairing defenceman. To me, that sounds like a more than fair return for Columbus. At minimum, the Blue Jackets just got a lot harder to play against.