With the young Rangers RFAs taking their qualifying offers it appears that more than enough cap space has been made available to keep Derek Stepan in New York (or at least, well pray that there is more than enough space to keep the Eagle around). What it also means is that Kevin Klein, who we repeatedly argued ( , ) should be moved while his stock was at its highest, is almost certainly staying in New York. Whether or not this will prove to be something the Rangers regret remains to be seen, but for the time being Klein and his $2.9 million cap hit are staying right where they are; in New York.
I’ve heard they’ve been asked about Kevin Klein, but don’t want to go that route. He’s signed for three more years at a very reasonable $2.9 million — not easy to replace at that cost." - Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts, 7/9
Although there are some question marks about the Rangers' forwards heading into 2015-16 we can now safely project what the blue line will look like and who the leading candidates are to spoil any projected lineups that we have headed into training camp and the preseason. Let's take a quick look at the seven players who are currently under contract to play defense for the Rangers next season (from hockeyscap.com).
It's easy to forget that Keith Yandle is so cap-friendly because of the salary retained by the Coyotes in last season's blockbuster deal, but that doesn't change just how much salary is tied up in the Rangers' blue line. The Rangers desperately need strong, consistent play from the players listed above in order to be serious contenders in the 2016 Playoffs. The only real change from last year's club is that the seventh defenseman is now Raphael Diaz instead of Matt Hunwick, who signed a two-year deal to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and got a nice $600k pay raise.
At the onset of the 2014-15 season we saw Hunwick competing with Steven Kampfer (now in Florida) and Mike Kostka (now in Ottawa) for the 7th defenseman spot. Hunwick won out thanks to more reliable, consistent play and making fewer mistakes in his own end despite not looking anything like a Norse god. In Hunwick's time with the Rangers he was unremarkable in the best of ways and did a fine job in his role, to the point where some speculated whether or not he should have been in the lineup regularly over Kevin Klein.
The Rangers bringing in Raphael Diaz to replace Hunwick might turn out to be one of the most subtle and important moves of the offseason. Diaz has been perpetually underrated and misunderstood for the duration of his professional career in North America. The Swiss-born defenseman has a lot of the tools and skills that make him a great fit for Alain Vigneault's Rangers. The chances of him winning a spot at the expense of Kevin Klein or any other Rangers' blueliner are relatively minimal at this point, but we all know that injuries can and will happen and it is very possible to see Diaz on the ice for 40 or 50 games with the club next season. The Diaz signing and contract are, frankly, fantastic. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season.
Of course, we couldn't talk about the Rangers' blue line without talking about the prospects that are looking to turn some heads and force some difficult decisions for Jeff Gorton and Alain Vigneault in training camp and the preseason. Leading the way is 21 year old Brady Skjei, a blue chip prospect from the University of Minnesota that some believe is already NHL ready. With Dan Boyle on the last year of his contract most of us already have Skjei penciled into the lineup for the 2016-17 roster, but Skjei might be on the NHL ice before that. The other name that should be on everyone's lips is the recently signed Dylan McIlrath who is probably looking at his last chance to play for the New York Rangers this upcoming season. It's easy and convenient to forget about McIlrath, but he could be a serviceable seventh defenseman or bottom pair guy on several NHL clubs. Obviously, that is a far cry from where he was picked in the NHL Draft and the high hopes that the team had for him, but by no means is he without use or value. A keen eye should be kept on the likes of Skjei, McIlrath, Peter Zamorsky, and the other Rangers' defensive prospects this upcoming season.
Whether or not Skjei, McIlrath, or some of the other blue line prospects the Rangers have play well enough to change what the club looks like for 2015-16 remains to be seen. As things currently stand the Rangers are headed into next season with a veteran group that will have a more acclimated Keith Yandle, a hungry Dan Boyle, and captain Ryan McDonagh who is looking to build off of his outstanding play in the 2015 Playoffs after a somewhat disappointing regular season. Many of us heard how the Rangers' defensemen were the envy of the league last season even with their flaws and wart.The Blueshirts are going to need some special hockey out of the big names on their blue line and consistent, intelligent play in their own end to justify the amount of money tied up in the players playing in front of Henrik Lundqvist. This group wants very badly to play and win together and this upcoming season might just be their last best chance to do so.
Let's go Rangers.