When the New York Rangers fell to an Ottawa Senators team that many thought would be a speed bump on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, the hockey world knew the time for change had come. Jeff Gorton heard the message loud and clear, and the Rangers’ core looks drastically different than it did six weeks ago. Gone are Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi, two of the team’s longest tenured players, as well as alternate captains. The team has opted against bringing back bit pieces in Brandon Pirri, Adam Clendening, and Marek Hrivik, proving the winds of change are blowing throughout the organization. With the window for talking to (but definitely not negotiating with, wink wink) pending Group 3 free agents opening on Sunday, teams can start to see how the market will unfold.
While New York’s expectations for free agency seemed to be sign Kevin Shattenkirk and some bargain bin players to fill out the roster, their plans have seemingly changed. As it stands right now, Alain Vigneault’s optimal opening night lineup looks something like this:
Rick Nash-???-Mats Zuccarello
Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich
J.T. Miller-Kevin Hayes-Michael Grabner
Brady Skjei-Tony DeAngelo
Marc Staal-Nick Holden
So with free agency looming, Jeff Gorton has five holes (including a replacement for Antti Raanta) he has to plug one way or another, including spots on the team’s top line and top defensive pairing. Some of the holes could be filled internally, as the team’s recent 7th Overall selection Lias Andersson or Boo Nieves could step in and fill a 4th line spot. Jesper Fast is only slated to be out for a month to open the season, so an AHL call-up like Nicklas Jensen should suffice in the meantime. So who should the Rangers pursue to fill out their roster? Let’s take a look at some of the team’s options.
This is the obvious solution to New York’s hole on their top pairing. Despite a sub-par stretch run after bring shipped from St. Louis to Washington, Kevin Shattenkirk has maintained his status as the top free agent in the class of 2017, and he’s earned it. Despite toiling behind inferior defenseman like Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester in St. Louis before being leapfrogged by Colton Parayko on the Blues’ depth chart, Shattenkirk is the bona fide top pairing defenseman that can allow Ryan McDonagh to reach his full potential. While his offensive prowess is well known, it’s his underrated defensive play that make the most noticeable difference on New York’s back end.
With Shattenkirk’s signing being a matter of when as opposed to if, Rangerstown can start to imagine the possibilities of having two of the league’s top defenseman together. Alain Vigneault could opt to pair them together and utilize them as an all situations, jack-of-all-trades pairing. Another option would be to spread them apart in order to have two reliable pairings to match up against other teams. If Tony DeAngelo proves himself capable of playing alongside Ryan McDonagh, then having Shattenkirk and McDonagh on separate pairings could prove to be the better option.
Jason Demers and Cody Franson
While bringing Kevin Shattenkirk aboard would seem to fill out New York’s defense corps, there still remains an issue of handedness imbalance. Dominic Galamini has broken down the importance of having balanced defensive pairings in the past, and it makes a major difference in on-ice performance:
As Galamini illustrates, defensive pairings with players of different handedness outperform pairings with two of the same handed shots nearly across the board. This is why resigning Brendan Smith at his rumored asking price of $4 Million would be a disaster for New York, as he would seemingly slot into a Top 4 spot on the right side with McDonagh, Skjei, and Staal entrenched on the left. If DeAngelo isn’t ready for full time minutes in the NHL at the start of the season, or if the team is looking for an upgrade to Nick Holden, then Jason Demers of the Florida Panthers and Cody Franson of the Buffalo Sabres are two options to look into.
After signing a five year contract with the Panthers last summer, Demers seems to be on the outs as a new regime has won a power struggle down in the Sunshine State. In spite of protecting four defenseman in the expansion draft, Florida elected to leave Demers exposed in the hopes that Vegas would take him, but they had no such luck. With that, it would seem that Dale Tallon, Chris Pronger, Bob Boughner, and the rest of Florida’s decision makers think the game a certain way, and don’t value what Demers can bring to their franchise. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and Demers could be the treasure that helps turn the Rangers back into a Stanley Cup contender.
If Jeff Gorton finds himself squeezed for cap space and can’t create the room for Demers’ $4.5 Million salary, than Cody Franson could be another solid, cost-effective option. After two seasons on the perpetually terrible Sabres, Franson is set to re-enter the market with a lot less buzz than he did in 2015. After making $3.3 Million the last two seasons, there’s a very real possibility that he might have to take a pay cut to stick in the NHL, and that’s where the Rangers can swoop in and stay one step ahead. Franson was already a bargain on his previous contract, so offering him a similar deal could entice him to come to Rangerstown. Something in the neighborhood of three years and $10 Million could be enough to bring Franson to New York and solidify the team’s group of blueliners for the rest of Henrik Lundqvist’s career.
Joe Thornton and John Mitchell
Thornton and Mitchell are candidates to fill either of New York’s holes at center, but both come with red flags attached. For Thornton, the issues with bringing him into the fold are plentiful. For starters, signing any 38 year old to a multi year deal is a risky proposition. It paid off for the Rangers the last time they did it with Dan Boyle, but Boyle wasn’t coming off a torn ACL and MCL like Thornton currently is. In addition to that, Thornton’s 1.31 Even Strength Points/60 last season were his lowest numbers since the turn of the century, and puts him behind offensive dynamos such as Adam Cracknell, Brady Skjei, and Jay Beagle. There’s a very real chance that Jumbo Joe will be a shadow of his former self next season, and committing millions to a player who might not be an improvement over Mika Zibanejad or Kevin Hayes would be disastrous for the Blueshirts.
Lots of calls coming into Joe Thornton's camp, too. He wants a 3-year deal; will review each option/scenario accordingly.— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) June 25, 2017
However, Thornton was 7th in the league with 2.32 ES Points/60 during the 15-16 season, and talent like that doesn’t just disappear overnight. If the price is right, Thornton could be a worthwhile gamble for New York. Since he’s the only top-flight center available on the market, it might be a gamble the Rangers have to take.
As for Oscar Lindberg’s vacated 4th line center spot, bringing back John Mitchell could be an interesting option for Jeff Gorton. While former fan favorite Brian Boyle is set to hit the market for the first time since leaving New York in 2014, a reunion seems likely. Boyle left Broadway looking for more money and ice time than the Rangers could pony up, and that still holds true today. In his place, Mitchell could serve as a useful buy-low option to serve as a stopgap depth center. After four seasons of 20+ points in Colorado, the former Ranger had a rough 16-17 campaign that included injuries, going unclaimed on waivers in November, and ending with only seven points in 65 games.
For those reasons, the Avalanche seem primed to move forward without Mitchell, and New York would be wise to kick the tires on him. Mitchell 10.9% in his first four seasons in with the Avs, but that number plummeted down to 5.3% this past season, so a rebound in scoring seems likely. And with Derek Ryan off the board after he signed a contract extension with Carolina, Mitchell stands as the only veteran option worth Gorton’s time. Players like Jay McClement and Marcus Kruger will be available via signing and trade, but those players must be avoided one way or another.
Whatever the Rangers do on July 1st, their team will look a lot different than it did during the handshake line against the Senators. For better or worse, change have finally come to New York. Now it’s up to Jeff Gorton to make sure those changes turn out to be for the better.