Because It's the Cap: New York Rangers Offseason Preview

Pat Keogh
June 12 2017 08:00AM

The New York Rangers have been a steady playoff team for the past decade largely due to the goaltending prowess of Henrik Lundqvist, but have unfortunately come up short these past several years, including this year’s second round exit at the hands of the totally beatable Ottawa Senators. It’s yet another disappointing end for the King with no Cup, and as he ages the Rangers’ situation becomes ever more dire; it would be a colossal failure of management to have the best goaltender of a generation fall into your lap and not be able to close the deal on at least one championship during his reign. 

As such, the Rangers, who underwent something of a retool last summer now must finish the task and revamp this squad in order to build a truly Cup contending team for the last several years of Henrik’s contract. Anything else, quite simply, would be a failure, leaving GM Jeff Gorton with a heavy task in front of him.

ROSTER ANALYSIS 

The Rangers went 48-28-6 last season, finishing with 102 points, a +36 goal differential, and landing in the first wild card spot for the playoffs. On paper this seems like a perfectly fine season, but there’s a couple of important caveats. First is that, as mentioned earlier, after a decade of playoff berths and no Cups to show for it, a perfectly fine season simply does not cut it. Second, much like the season prior, the Rangers started off hot, scoring a ton of goals per game for the first couple of months of the season, only to taper off towards the latter end of the regular season campaign. Third, and this is perhaps most important, is that the Rangers were almost a tale of two teams this past season, with their stellar offensive depth stymied for large swaths of the season by totally lacklustre defense.

Let’s start off with that offense. The Rangers had four 20+ goal scorers in Chris Kreider, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, and JT Miller this past season, with Kevin Hayes and Derek Stepan both notching 17 themselves. As far as overall point production, Mast Zuccarello, JT Miller, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider each had 50+ point seasons, with Hayes coming in just short of that measure at 49 (an unfortunate injury kept Mika Zibanejad’s production to 37 points for the season, but there is little doubt that he would have hit 50 had he been healthy). These players lead the way for the Rangers on a nightly basis, supported by a rotating cast of the painfully under-utilized Pavel Buchnevich, college free agent signing Jimmy Vesey, and utility players Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg. On the whole, the Rangers’ forward depth was impressive, blinding opponents with their speed and creating odd-man rushes seemingly at will. That is, when they weren’t totally hemmed in their own end by poor defensive play.

Relative to their teammates, the Rangers’ top four for most of the season, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Nick Holden had CF%s of -5.6, -2.3, -1.6, and -0.7. The raw numbers aren’t much prettier, with those same four putting up CF%s 44.2, 46.4, 46.8, and 47.3. Given that those four defensemen ranked 9th, 2nd, 3rd and 1st in ice time this past season, that’s not exactly a good thing (these numbers are all at even strength also – one can only imagine how they’d look if we were including penalty kill time in the calculus here). Now there were a couple of bright spots on defense for the Rangers, with Ryan McDonagh coming in 6th overall in scoring on the team with 42 points at all situations, and Brady Skjei posting 39 points in his rookie season. Additionally, acquiring Brendan Smith at the trade deadline helped stabilize things on the back end, with Smith putting up a 49.5% CF% and 1.6% relative to his teammates. Unfortunately, the Smith/Skjei pairing was painfully under-utilized towards the end of the regular season and into the postseason, with Alain Vigneault refusing to play the two in tight situations, such as the team’s infamous playoff series against Ottawa where they blew a lead in the third period on three occasions. All of this points to the obvious starting point for improving this Rangers team: a complete defensive overhaul.

CAP SITUATION

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The Rangers have their work cut out for them this offseason, with the team looking to revamp its defense while retaining key free agents and potentially going fishing for a big one in the UFA market.

The most notable free agent the team has is the recently acquired Mika Zibanejad, who, given that they acquired him in exchange for a cost-controlled center in Derick Brassard, is hopefully going to get his own long-term, cost-controlled deal. What exactly that deal might look like is a subject that could be its own post, but I would guess between four and six years at around $5-$6 million. Obviously that’s quite the range, but it really all depends on how Rangers management views the young center in their long term plans, and whether they believe that the potential he showed this season, despite breaking his leg, is worth a long term commitment.

The other big name the Rangers would like to retain this summer as free agency looms is Brendan Smith, who proved his worth on the blueline from the trade deadline through the postseason, in addition to the fact that he cost the Rangers a 2nd and 3rd round pick. His next contract is truly a mystery to me, but if the Rangers locked him down for under $4 million for around 4 years I would be very pleased.

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OFFSEASON GAME PLAN

The Rangers’ depth at forward puts them in quite a pickle with the expansion draft looming, as they are likely to lose Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast, or Oscar Lindberg to Vegas, in the event that Vegas doesn’t snag their starter-quality backup Antti Raanta. Of course, the Rangers could bribe the Golden Knights to take one of their less than desirable defensemen, but as of June 11th neither Dan Girardi nor Marc Staal have been asked to waive their NTCs for the expansion draft (of course the Rangers could always bribe Vegas with a pick in exchange for them taking one of Nick Holden or Kevin Klein). In short: who knows. 

One thing that looks almost certain this season is that one of Dan Girardi or Marc Staal will be bought out. Given their respective contract structures, it would be less painful for the Rangers to buyout Dan Girardi. That would leave the Rangers with a $2.6 million cap hit for next year, a $3.6 million cap hit for the next two, and then a $1.1 million cap hit for the next three seasons after that (his current contract carries a $5.5m cap hit through 2020). If you think that looks bad, a Marc Staal buyout would leave the Rangers with $2.1 million cap hit for two season followed by a $3.1 million cap hit for the 2019-20 season, a $3.9 million cap hit for the following season, and then four more seasons of a $1.4 million cap hit. Ouch. 

Of course, as I recently described over at Blue Seat Blogs (blueseatblogs.com, a wonderful collection of Rangers writers, although I might be biased), there is another option: trading for a goalie. This sounds counterintuitive, but I’m talking about one of Dallas’ goalies, who would then be immediately bought out. Given the Stars’ weakness at LD, a trade of Marc Staal, picks, and a prospect in exchange for one of Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen, followed by an immediate buyout of the acquired contract would be less painful, with Niemi carrying a buyout cap hit of $1.5m for two years and Lehtonen’s being $2.6 for one year and $1.6 for the following year. If Jeff Gorton really wants to get tricky with it, he could then flip Antti Raanta to Calgary or Winnipeg, who are rumored to have interest, in order to recoup the picks. All in a day’s work. 

Then there’s the free agency market. The big name is Kevin Shattenkirk, who I won’t lie, I want to see in blue. Obviously, if that doesn’t work out the Rangers’ next best option involves trading for a true top-pairing right handed defenseman to play alongside Ryan McDonagh, and then filling in the blanks from there. With the recent additions of Neal Pionk and Alexei Bereglazov, the latter task is not quite as dire as one might imagine, and they do have both Sean Day and Ryan Graves waiting in the wings if things got really desperate. Again, smarter minds than I have written about who and how the Rangers should acquire defensemen, so I’ll refer you to my colleagues at Blue Seat Blogs and Blushirt Banter for all of your trade hypothetical needs.

The bottom line is that changes are coming for the Blueshirts, likely involving defensemen. This has been the obvious, glaring organizational need for the past several years and should be welcome among any fan of the team, but the maneuvering it will take to make it all possible is going to be complex and hinges on a series of things going right for the Rangers. I’ll admit that after last summer’s savvy pickups I have some faith that Jeff Gorton at the very least has a plan. The problem, because it’s the cap, is executing it.

PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES...

30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils26. Buffalo Sabres25. Detroit Red Wings24. Dallas Stars23. Florida Panthers22. Los Angeles Kings21. Carolina Hurricanes20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames14. Toronto Maple Leafs13. Boston Bruins12. Ottawa Senators11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues 

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