Hartnett: Rangers Roster Coming Along Nicely, But The Work Isn't Done Yet

Sean Hartnett
July 05, 2019 - 10:53 am
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The Rangers have spent the early weeks of the NHL’s offseason making significant improvements, progressing a two-year rebuild into a transformed roster that excites fans ahead of the 2019-20 season.

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With Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox among the club’s most intriguing arrivals, the Blueshirts will begin year two of the David Quinn era with raised expectations – though it’s difficult to pinpoint how much those expectations will have been elevated until a more finalized roster takes shape during the preseason.

General manager Jeff Gorton has taken a proactive approach in signing Panarin and trading for Trouba. These key acquisitions mark a clear shift that has accelerated a patient rebuild into a competitive on-ice product. The best general managers in the league are always in a state of constant evaluation and no roster, no matter how talented, is a finished product.

Gorton’s phone line will continue to be busy in the coming weeks and months. Priority one will be clearing cap space to pave the way for the extensions of Trouba, Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo.

This can be accomplished through cap-shedding trades, taking advantage of the second buyout window (which is triggered if an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent files for arbitration) or some combination of the two.

Chris Kreider’s future will be clarified either through a long-term extension or his power forward presence being sacrificed for the return of freed cap space and assets that aid the organization’s future. The decision is fairly straightforward. Is Kreider deserving of a seven-year extension approaching $7 million AAV? We’ll soon find out the Rangers’ answer to that question.

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It’s a big commitment in terms of dollars and belief. The Rangers smartly shied away from Kevin Hayes’ ask that was right in line with the extension that Kreider could command. The Rangers swapped Hayes for a valuable scorer/agitator in Lemieux, and for the 20th overall pick in the 2019 draft last February. Returning that pick to Winnipeg, along with young defensemen Neal Pionk, surprisingly was enough to acquire Trouba from the Jets.

The rival Philadelphia Flyers are now betting big on Hayes after handing him a seven-year, $50 million deal. Though Hayes performed well during his final year with the Rangers and continued to be productive in Winnipeg, I’m not sure how many GMs would have been willing to pony up that kind of dough to a center that never put up a 60-point season.

Kreider falls into the same category. His best output both in terms of points-per-game (0.71) and points (53) came in the 2016-17 season. The two seasons that followed haven’t been down years – nor has there been a statistical leap that many expected.

Sometimes, it’s best to walk away from the negotiating table when the price gets that high. While Kreider provides an impressive blend of speed, physicality and 50-plus point production, the Rangers need to be mindful of alternative wings that provide a similar set of tools.

Perhaps, these replacement targets are more Kreider-lite rather than Kreider 2.0. Marcus Johansson remains a free agent and brings a speed element. Maybe a short-term commitment around $4.5 million AAV would be enough to lure him to Madison Square Garden? Michael Ferland plays a power forward’s game and brings scoring punch. He’d also probably be a little less expensive than Johansson in terms of annual cap hit.

Even if Kreider is shaved off the payroll, the Rangers will need to trim more salary to fill out their roster, extend RFAs and open up cap room to pursue improvements. Vladislav Namestnikov ($4 million AAV) and Ryan Strome ($3.1 million) could be moved, though the Rangers would likely have to absorb some of Namestnikov’s cap hit to send him elsewhere.

Additionally, the Rangers would have the option of buying out one or both of Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith once a second buyout window is triggered. Buying out Shattenkirk would save the team $5.1 million this season and $567,000 next season, while buying out Smith would save $3.3 million this season and $1.2 million the next.

A buyout of Shattenkirk would add $1.4 million in dead cap space for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, while buying out Smith would create $1.1 million in dead space over the same span.

Some cap-clearing options are more desirable than others, so the name of the game is finding enough room to extend RFAs while improving need areas. An area that eventually needs to be improved either through internal development or external options is second line center. Would the Rangers be best served by trading Kreider, flipping Chytil to the left wing and trading for a legit No. 2 center?

That’s something to chew on as the Rangers’ roster building approach comes into focus.

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