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

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 12:27 am by Pat Keogh


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 Lightning17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames14. Toronto Maple Leafs13. Boston Bruins12. Ottawa Senators11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues