With the Rangers almost entirely sitting out the free agent frenzy of July 1st, what little hope the team had of competing in the 2018-19 season vanished. The Rangers were never in on John Tavares or Dougie Hamilton, and haven’t been mentioned as possible suitors for some of the impact players rumored to be on the market, such as Jeff Skinner or Tyler Seguin. The team has been on the periphery of the rumors swirling around Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators, but they’re more often involved as a landing spot for toxic contracts rather than acquiring good players.
Whether the franchise is re-tooling, rebuilding, or whatever phrase best fits what Jeff Gorton is doing right now, two things are true given the current landscape of the team: The window for competing next season has closed, and the window for the 2019-2020 season is wide open. Even if New York doesn’t make a play on Karlsson, the team appears to be one of the early favorites to land Columbus Blue Jackets’ superstar Atremi Panarin.
Elliotte Friedman reported that New York was among three preferred destination for Panarin (along with Florida and Los Angeles, although Friedman didn’t specify whether “New York” and “Florida”meant specific teams are just the states), and Larry Brooks had this to say about the Rangers’ mindset regarding Panarin:
If Panarin reaches free agency next summer, Rangers will be all in. But they are not trading the three, four, five assets Jackets would demand in return. Columbus still hopes to convince him to stay.— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) June 25, 2018
As things stand right now, the Blue Jackets are asking for a king’s ransom for Panarin, as their management team is holding out hope of convincing Panarin that spending the next eight seasons in Columbus is the best decision he could make. Backing up the Brinks truck onto his driveway would help sway his decision, but money isn’t the only element in play for Panarin. The Rangers might be “rebuilding” right now, but acquiring Panarin via free agency or a deadline deal at a less exuberant price would bring the rebuild to a close.
It’s a subject that’ll be explored in-depth at a later date, but the Rangers could conclude their rebuild at the end of the upcoming season and be in good shape moving forward if they land Panarin, or any other elite talent currently on the market. With that in mind, Jeff Gorton can’t afford to turn the Rangers’ plethora of salary cap space into a graveyard of bad contracts. Every name the Rangers have been linked to in some way would have a disastrous impact on New York’s chances of competing in the remotely nearly future. Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan, Edmonton’s Milan Lucic, and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan are three of the most common names linked to the Rangers, and Jeff Gorton would be wise to avoid those players like the plague.
Ryan and Lucic should be absolute non-starters for the Rangers. Those two contracts would be among the longest on New York’s cap outlook, and the odds of New York getting fair value in exchange for taking on those contracts is slim to none. If past instances of teams dumping toxic contracts is precedent for what the Rangers could receive, it’s not a pretty picture.
The Florida Panthers sent Lawson Crouse in a package with Dave Bolland’s contract (three years, $5.5M AAV) to Arizona for a 2nd and 3rd round draft pick. Crouse has scored 13 points in 83 NHL games since the trade, and spent the majority of last season in the AHL, while the Coyotes gave up what ended up being the 66th and 34th selections over two drafts.
The Dion Phaneuf saga in Ottawa is another prime example of long-term salary dumps ending poorly for the team acquiring the hefty contract. Phaneuf was packaged with four AHLers and shipped from Toronto in exchange for a 2nd round selection, a prospect, and the short term toxic contracts of Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, and Milan Michalek.
After spending parts of three seasons in Ottawa, the Senators realized they erred in acquiring Phaneuf and made the decision to move on. After agreeing to retain 25% ($1.75 Million to be exact) of his deal, the Senators sent him in a package to Los Angeles in exchange for Nick Shore and the slightly less toxic, more Eugene Melnyk-friendly contract of Marian Gaborik.
The most beneficial contract dumps in recent memory have been of the short term variety, with the contracts of Bryan Bickell, Brooks Orpik, and Steve Mason mutually benefiting both teams in recent years. For that reason, if the Rangers were to take on any toxic contracts, Callahan’s would be the most palatable.
The two years remaining on Callahan’s contract would be less of an impediment to the team’s future plans, but taking on the former captain’s $5.8 million cap hit is still a risky proposition. The hard-nosed winger has missed 67 games for the Lightning since the 2016-17 season, and has been injured and recovering from different surgeries over the last two summers. The latter part of that is critical, as another injury requiring offseason surgery and/or recovery would prevent New York from buying Callahan out.
The team’s cap situation is difficult to predict now with Brady Skjei, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, and Ryan Spooner all still unsigned, so let’s use this projection for argument’s sake:
In this example, Skjei and Vesey receive bridge deals, Hayes gets a long term contract extension, and Spooner takes a one year deal and is a non-factor in the team’s plans next summer. If Callahan is added without any roster players going to Tampa Bay, the team would have a shade over $64 million committed to the 19-20 roster. A buyout would grant the team closer to $62 million, so it would be an option to take into consideration. From there, the Rangers would need to extend the contracts of Pavel Buchnevich, Neal Pionk, and Tony DeAngelo, as well as consider bringing back Mats Zuccarello.
The Rangers would have the space to make a play for Panarin, as well as welcome the expected influx of their Russian prospects Igor Shestyorkin, Yegor Rykov, and Vitali Kravtsov. The defense corps could use work, but if some combination of Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden prove themselves as legitimate top nine centers, Jeff Gorton could use Hayes or Mika Zibanejad as trade chips. Salary could be cleared via moving on from Vesey or Vladislav Namestnikov, and the Rangers would have all the space they need to pursue a player like Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba or Carolina’s Justin Faulk.
Even if the Rangers fail to land Panarin, there are a plethora of other options for the Blueshirts to look into. The Montreal Canadiens will reportedly abstain from negotiating a contract extension with Max Pacioretty, so the five-time 30 goal scorer is officially on the market. The New Canaan, CT native would be an excellent plan B if Panarin is traded and extended before going to market, so the Rangers should be all in on bringing the former Rangers’ fan home if the opportunity arises.
Jake Gardiner could become a cap casualty of Toronto’s situation, and Anton Stralman is all but certain to be playing his final season in Tampa Bay this fall. Both players would bring much needed respectability to the Blueshirts’ top four defense corps. If Tampa is all in on Erik Karlsson, Gorton could even try to include Stralman in a Callahan deal and get a head start on negotiating a contract with the Swedish defensive stalwart.
With all of the options available to him, Jeff Gorton doesn’t need to galaxy brain the team’s rebuild. The odds of landing a proven talent via trade or free agency or much higher than they would be in taking on a toxic contract in exchange for future assets and hoping for the best. If the Rangers can use their cap space to their advantage over the next 12 months, then the team should be all in. Anything that hinders the team’s ability to compete far beyond 2019 should be off limits.