Overall, the 2018 NHL Draft was a success for the New York Rangers (I’ll have my article fully reviewing the draft coming out soon!). At the same time, one thing became abundantly clear this past weekend: The New York Rangers are rebuilding. They are not going to try another “re-tool on the fly”, they aren’t going to try and find any shortcuts, and they’re not going to rush it. They are going to rebuild, and they’re gonna do it right.
With the draft in the books, the Rangers must quickly shift their focus towards free agency, which begins this Sunday, July 1st. For the first time in many years, the Blueshirts will have a surplus of cap space, as Jeff Gorton will have approximately 30 million dollars at his disposal this offseason. New York will not be stuck in the cap-crunch that we’ve become accustomed to over the last several seasons. Although it sounds counterintuitive with the Rangers’ excessive amount of spending money, don’t expect the Blueshirts to make their annual offseason splash this year, and if they were to make one, it’d come through a trade, not a signing. They won’t be chasing any big-name players, and they won’t be making any flashy signings. With the current state of the team, the weak 2018 free agent class, and the elite pool of free agents expected in 2019, I’d be surprised to see Gorton spend much money over the next month.
Today I examine the Rangers’ 2018 free agency options.
Toughness and Grit:
All offseason Jeff Gorton has stressed the need for an influx of toughness on the Rangers’ roster, as at times last season, New York was a pushover. They lacked intensity, they weren’t physical, and they looked completely disengaged. Because of this, the Rangers will be looking to add gritty forwards that play with an edge.
There are two directions that can be taken in addressing this need. They can target guys who are more pure physical presences, or others who play with an edge but also bring some offense and help in the other dimensions of the game such as the forecheck and penalty-kill. One player in the former category who New York has been linked to throughout the legal tampering period is Ryan Reaves. He is experienced, loved by his teammates, a great leader, and a top-notch hockey-fighter. According to Matt Cane’s free agent contract projection chart, Reaves is expected to receive a two-year deal with an annual average value (AAV) of approximately 1.3 million dollars, but I would expect him to get closer to $2.5 million. Some targets that would fulfill the parameters of the latter category are Leo Komarov, Antoine Roussel, Tommy Wingels, Nick Shore and Matt Calvert. Cane projects that all of these guys will sign for one or two years, with annual salaries between 1.5 and 3 million dollars. Since money is not an issue right now for the Blueshirts, I’d be happy if the Rangers signed any of those guys, as long they’re signed for two years or less. The aforementioned tough guys will all make the Rangers much harder to play against and should succeed in a bottom-six role.
The Rangers’ trade deadline sell-off resulted in the acquisition of many promising young players. Because of this, the Blueshirts will likely put out their youngest squad in years. As of now, the roster consists of only three skaters (Lundqvist, Staal, and Zuccarello) over 30-years-old. That number should increase come the start of next season, as Jeff Gorton will look to obtain veteran forwards to aide the development of New York’s newfound youth.
Within the group of available veterans, New York will have lots of choices. Jay Beagle, Chris Kunitz, Scott Hartnell, Dominic Moore, Valtteri Filppula, and Blake Comeau all fit this mold. All of them are predicted to command somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million dollars and should settle for short-term contracts. These veterans might not contribute to the on-ice success of the team all that much, but they will provide some much-needed leadership to the captain-less Rangers.
Over the last number of years, the Rangers have had a number of successful reclamation projects. It started with Anton Stralman, then it was Benoit Pouliot, next was Antti Raanta, and most recently it was Michael Grabner. All three had shown flashes of potential, and resurrected or elevated their careers in New York. With Grabner gone, it’s time to find the Blueshirts’ newest reclamation project. My candidates for this year are Tobias Rieder, Anthony Duclair, and Austin Czarnik. I could definitely see Gorton taking a flier on one of those three because of the lack of risk involved and the potential for immense returns on what would be a short and inexpensive investment.
Tobias Rieder is a lesser version of Michael Grabner. He has speed, skill, and is responsible in his own end, yet he has struggled to put it all together thus far in his career. He looked like he was on the rise following his second NHL season, in which he tallied 37 points as a 23-year-old. However, he has not surpassed that point-total since then. Matt Cane’s model anticipates that Rieder will receive a two-year deal with an AAV of 2 million dollars.
A reunion with Anthony Duclair could be just what he needs to get his career back on track. Once a promising Rangers prospect, Duclair was dealt to Arizona in the Keith Yandle trade. In his first full NHL season, at just 20-years-old, the winger scored 44 points for the Coyotes. He was on the rise, looking like a future first-liner. Similar to Rieder, Duclair collapsed after his encouraging season. Duclair was then traded to Chicago this past season and he was unable to produce there either. Perhaps a return to New York could get Duclair’s career going back in the right direction. He should receive a contract comparable to that of Rieder.
My final and most intriguing nominee is Austin Czarnik. Czarnik signed with the Bruins as an undrafted free agent a couple of years ago, and he has spent the majority of his time with the organization tearing it up in the AHL, as the 25-year-old center has notched 155 points in 157 career contests for the Providence Bruins. Czarnik hasn’t been given much of a chance in the NHL, but this past season he posted 4 points in 10 games with Boston. There is plenty of interest in the talented forward due to the belief that he will sign a very inexpensive deal. I think it’d definitely be worth taking a chance on him.
The Rangers’ defense was a disaster last year. Alain Vigneault’s poor defensive system should shoulder some of the blame, but the majority of the blame falls on the players. Kevin Shattenkirk sustained an injury in the preseason, Brady Skjei regressed from his promising rookie season, Brendan Smith ended up in Hartford after re-signing with New York on a lucrative (4 year, 17 million dollar) contract, and Tony DeAngelo didn’t turn out to be the player the Blueshirts thought they were getting. The Boys in Blue surrendered 3.2 goals per game last season, and that number could’ve been significantly higher if not for Henrik Lundqvist’s stellar play in between the pipes. Jeff Gorton hopes to have found future fixes to this major problem in trade deadline acquisitions Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, and Yegor Rykov, and first-round draft picks K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. In terms of the near future, I don’t expect him to try and find any immediate solutions this summer.
With the news that John Carlson will be staying in Washington, this year’s crop of free agent defenseman is extremely weak. The class of unrestricted free agent defensemen is comprised of three types of players for the most part: Journeymen, veteran d-men who are past their prime, and other younger guys who have struggled to establish themselves as NHL regulars. The top options among this year’s UFA defensemen are Mike Green, Thomas Hickey, Ian Cole, John Moore, Dan Hamhuis, Jack Johnson, and Calvin De Haan, all of whom are best used as bottom-pair blue-liners.
Currently, the Blueshirts have a plethora of players that will compete for a spot on the back-end this coming season. The competitors include: Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, John Gilmour, Brendan Smith, Libor Hajek, and Ryan Lindgren. That’s 9 players for 6 spots. Yes, the players I listed certainly won’t gel to form an elite defense, but in a season where the focus is more on developing players than winning, that is irrelevant. With that in mind, it wouldn’t make much sense to add more defensemen to the mix, as it would only take playing time away from the youngsters. Even if Gorton was interested in one of the previously mentioned free agents, the price would probably be exorbitantly high because of the bidding war that could take place due to the lack of quality defensive options. If the Rangers were to sign a defenseman, it would make sense to add a veteran presence like Paul Martin, who could help mentor the kids. Additionally, I’d be fine seeing the Rangers take a chance on a younger guy like Dylan DeMelo, Brandon Davidson, or Greg Pateryn.
Gorton’s Free Agents:
Jeff Gorton extended qualifying offers to all of the Rangers’ restricted free agents except for Adam Tambellini. Out of that group, I’m confident that Kevin Hayes and Brady Skjei will be re-signed. Hayes is reportedly interested in a five-year 28 million dollar contract, which I think is fair value. Hayes will either be re-signed or traded in order to help cleanup New York’s logjam at center. In terms of Skjei, there have been far fewer leaked details on his contract demands, but the Blueshirts have two options with him. They could sign him to a “prove it” bridge-deal, or they could put some faith in him and ink him to a long-term contract. If I were Gorton, I wouldn’t sign him to a short-term deal because of the possibility of a rebound season. This would just result in a future deal with a higher AAV than Skjei would receive in a long-term deal that is signed now. Matt Cane estimates that Skjei will sign a one-year deal worth 2.8 million dollars, which I think would be a mistake on Jeff Gorton’s part.
The rest of the notable restricted free agents will likely be traded, or they will sign elsewhere. I’d be shocked if all three of Ryan Spooner, Vlad Namestnikov, and Jimmy Vesey are Rangers come next season. I can’t even see more than one of them returning for another campaign on Broadway.
As for the unrestricted free agents, I think their tenures in New York are over. Paul Carey, Ryan Sproul, and Cody McLeod will all be easily replaced. The only UFA who could possibly return is Ondrej Pavelec, as he performed admirably in backing up Henrik Lundqvist. This will depend on management’s trust in Alexandar Georgiev. The young Russian was excellent during his brief stint with the Blueshirts last season, but we’ll see if the organization is confident enough in Georgiev to hand him the reigns to the backup goaltender position. Considering Henrik Lundqvist is 36 and the team is not expected to contend next season, it seems like the perfect opportunity for Georgiev to gain valuable experience. I don’t see the point in bringing in another goalie.
Lastly, there is the possibility of a reunion with the players that New York dealt at the trade deadline. A Michael Grabner homecoming is certainly a possibility, but he will likely ask for far more money than the Rangers would be interested in giving him. The same goes for Rick Nash; however, he seems to have now decided to rethink whether or not he wants to lace up the skates next season. As for Nick Holden, he will presumably sign a contract that would pay him roughly 3 million dollars yearly, so I’m not sure why Jeff Gorton would have any interest in reuniting with the turnover-prone defenseman.
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