The Rangers acquired the prolific scoring winger and defenseman Niko Mikkola from the St. Louis Blues on Thursday for conditional 2023 first- and 2024 fourth-round picks, forward Sammy Blais and prospect Hunter Skinner.
Tarasenko gives New York even more of an offensive boost in the hopes of making another deep playoff run following a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Final. The 31-year-old Russian has 29 points in 38 games this season but is also a proven scorer who has surpassed 30 goals six times in his NHL career.
Getting Tarasenko comes on the heels of the New York Islanders acquiring 30-goal-scoring center Bo Horvat from Vancouver and signing him to a $68 million, eight-year extension.
It puts more pressure on the teams around the Rangers and Islanders in the Metropolitan and the rest of the East, most notably the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes and second-place New Jersey Devils, who lost All-Star center Jack Hughes to a week-to-week injury. Any of those teams would be a good fit for 26-year-old San Jose Sharks winger Timo Meier, who's under team control for at least next season at $10 million and could sign a long-term extension.
The Rangers targeted Tarasenko among the top wingers available, given the high asking price and salary cap ramifications of acquiring Meier or Chicago's Patrick Kane, the latter of whom still has not decided if he wants to be traded from the Blackhawks. St. Louis retained half of Tarasenko's salary and $7.5 million cap hit, giving New York some flexibility to make more moves over the next three weeks.
“It’s something we’ve been looking at for a while,” Rangers general manager Chris Drury said on a video call with reporters. “It gives the two new players a little more time to acclimate to our group, so excited to do it now and get them in the lineup.”
As part of their roster shuffle, the Rangers put defenseman Libor Hajek on waivers to clear roster space for Mikkola, a 6-foot-5, 26-year-old Finn who gives them more depth on the blue line. Rookie forward Will Cuylle was also sent back to Hartford of the American Hockey League.
Blais returns to the Blues after less than two years since they traded him to the Rangers with a second-round pick for Pavel Buchnevich.
Dealing Tarasenko could be the start of a selloff in St. Louis with the Blues on track to miss the playoffs for just the second time in 12 years. Captain Ryan O'Reilly and gritty forward Ivan Barbashev are also pending free agents who could be valuable rental pickups for contenders.
Asked if he was done trading, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong laughed and said, “Finished for tonight.” He declined to answer about the possibility of signing O'Reilly beyond this season.
“Ryan’s our captain,” Armstrong said. “I'm a big fan of Ryan. He and I talked behind closed doors, and I’m going to keep it there. He knows how I feel about him.”
Tarasenko, who in 2019 helped the Blues win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, initially requested a trade in the summer of 2021 because he was unhappy with how the team handled his shoulder injuries. He nevertheless reported to camp and played for them since, including being a point-a-game player last season.
“A couple years ago I was provided a list of teams that he would like to go to, so I started with that group and I was able to find a match out of that group," Armstrong said. “I was hoping that that didn’t change. Obviously New York’s a marquee city for all players in the league, so I was comfortable that when I called (his agent), I would have been surprised if that had have been an issue.”
Blues coach Craig Berube got to talk to Tarasenko after the trade and told him, “Good luck moving forward (and) thanks for everything.”
“Tough situation, for sure,” Berube told reporters after practice. “Obviously we haven’t performed well enough. That’s what happens: Trades are made. Both of them have been good players for us.”
The first-round pick St. Louis received will be the later of the Rangers' or Stars' — from the trade that sent defenseman Niks Lundkvist to Dallas — this year, unless the Stars' pick winds up in the top 10. The fourth-rounder next year becomes a third as long as New York makes the playoffs this season, which is very likely.
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