Hartnett: Where Will Rangers Turn To Alleviate Salary-Cap Pressure?

Futures Of Several Veterans Up In The Air

Sean Hartnett
July 22, 2019 - 11:53 am
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The Rangers are facing an important juncture in the roadmap toward contention. After signing Jacob Trouba to a seven-year, $56 million contract and Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million deal, the Blueshirts are under pressure to alleviate a salary-cap crunch.

Not only do the Rangers need to clear salary for the re-signings of Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, they must ensure a competitive future by surrounding primed-aged franchise players Mika Zibanejad, Panarin and Trouba with a Stanley Cup-caliber supporting cast.

A transformation into one of the league’s heavyweights doesn’t happen overnight even with prominent acquisitions like Panarin and Trouba on board. It takes a lot of wise planning and long-term salary-cap consideration. So far in his tenure, general manager Jeff Gorton has gotten the majority of big calls right.

I don’t think you can blame Gorton for the way Kevin Shattenkirk’s Rangers career has gone to date. Shattenkirk turned down longer, more lucrative offers to play for his childhood team. If other general managers were willing to sign Shattenkirk to longer commitments than the four years he received from the Blueshirts, you can’t fault Gorton.

Kevin Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei
Danny Wild/USA TODAY Images

Injuries have taken a toll on Shattenkirk. It’s unclear if he can regain the offense-generating magic of his St. Louis heyday. Brendan Smith has seen a similar decline, and had he reached free agency in 2017, teams surely would have entered a bidding war for his services. I don’t think anyone saw the precipitous dips of Smith and Shattenkirk happening instantly after signing their respective deals.

Back to Gorton’s positive track record. He masterfully oversaw a multiyear process that allowed the Rangers to sign Panarin, acquire Trouba and Zibanejad while accumulating a slew of promising youngsters led by Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox and Vitali Kravtsov. Eventually, K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Matthew Robertson and others will make the jump to Madison Square Garden.

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Eventually, these youngsters will develop and inherit larger roles. Hockey can be ruthless in that established players can be pushed out by up-and-coming youth. Sometimes, players who demonstrate exciting promise can ultimately fall short of reaching their full potential.

These factors make it difficult for general managers to navigate the salary-cap minefield. Let’s think about the questions that general managers ponder when handing out long-term contracts.

How good is this player now? Can we expect this player to improve in the coming years? What is his injury history and the possibility of recurring injuries? Could this player run into sharp regression with age, and how might this affect our cap situation years down the line?

When the Rangers make their ultimate decision on the future of Chris Kreider, there’s much to consider. Gorton opted not to hand expensive extensions to Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. In time, I believe these decisions will be looked back on as intelligent cap management. Hayes will be under pressure to justify the seven-year, $50 million contract given to him by the rival Philadelphia Flyers. Zuccarello signed a five-year $30 million deal with the Minnesota Wild, and that contract could be particularly risky for Minnesota once he enters his mid-30s.

I don’t see the Rangers ponying up a contract near seven years and $7 million in average-annual value to keep Kreider at the Garden. Like Hayes and Zuccarello before him, he’s a player whom the Rangers would like to keep – but only under the right figures.

Waving goodbye to Kreider would clear $4.6 million off the books and it’s going to take more than that for the Rangers to be in a healthy cap situation where they have breathing space and flexibility. Buyouts of Smith and Shattenkirk are likely to be strongly considered. Vladislav Namestnikov and Ryan Strome aren’t essential to the long-term picture.

I discussed the possibility of the drastic measure of trading Pavel Buchnevich in Friday’s column. In short, it’s not in the Rangers’ best interest to move a high-ceiling wing who is entering his peak years unless they receive an incredible offer.

The Rangers’ cap quandary has led some to speculate about the future of Brady Skjei. A theme you’ll often read in my columns is this: Few players are untouchable, and there’s an acceptable trade return for nearly any player. I’m sure plenty of teams are keeping close tabs on Skjei’s availability. He has five years remaining on his deal at $5.25 million AAV.

Skjei has endured two seasons of underperformance after a very strong 2016-17 campaign in his first full season. My opinion of Skjei in 2017 was that he could be as good as former captain Ryan McDonagh and possibly better. So, it’s been perplexing to understand why Skjei hasn’t developed as many fans had hoped.

That said, his performances in his last two seasons doesn’t mean he won’t improve, either. The Rangers’ blue line was makeshift during that period. I’d like to see Skjei paired with Trouba to measure his capability of bounce-back.

The Rangers will eventually be forced to consider how Skjei fits into the long-term picture and how much longer veteran Marc Staal can fend off left-handed youngsters Miller, Robertson, Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren and Yegor Rykov. If Skjei isn’t playing like a quality top-four defenseman and Staal’s regression becomes more significant, they’re not going to be much help to the Rangers’ quest toward contention.

Creative solutions are in order for the Rangers, and there’s plenty of intrigue regarding which course Gorton takes to tackle the cap and reshape the roster.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.