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If Not Artemi Panarin, Then Who?

Should the superstar winger go elsewhere, Jeff Gorton has options ahead of what promises to be a busy summer

Columbus Blue Jackets v Boston Bruins - Game Two Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

We’ve yet to reach the inflection point in the calendar at which moment Artemi Panarin can legally sign his name to an NHL contract with the New York Rangers. In spite of this, it’s largely felt like a foregone conclusion to this point. The 27-year-old superstar has been inextricably linked to New York for months, and with now ex-Columbus Blue Jackets’ President John Davidson secured, it sure feels like the Blueshirts have the inside track.

But have any of us stopped to seriously ask ourselves what happens if come July 1 (or later), Panarin goes elsewhere? Or, perhaps more importantly, if not Panarin, then who?

Assuming an $83 million salary cap (and no major roster changes), the Rangers are projected to enter the free agent period with just over $19 million in cap space. That’s not just a healthy chunk of change, but money we can assume they’re itching to spend given their early ties to Panarin and Erik Karlsson, not to mention reported scuttlebutt about accelerating their rebuild.

”But it’s kind of a soft rebuild, if you want to call it that,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie on TSN 1260 this past March. “Because don’t be surprised if this summer, when Artemi Panarin is there in free agency, the Rangers are there with bags of money saying, ‘Come see us, come play with us.’ Because it is New York, and they don’t want this [rebuild] to be an all-day sucker, if you will, that’s going to take five, six, seven years.”

While the Rangers have done an admirable job of collecting young players and draft picks, as they set out to, they don’t seem to have the stomach for a prolonged rebuilding project which would see them continue to miss the playoffs for numerous coming seasons. An extended rebuild would invariably burn what few NHL seasons Henrik Lundqvist has left to play, which may be influencing the path they’re creating with this process.

This draft, in particular, is going to fuel their rebuild with their nine draft picks, which are highlighted by their first — the second overall pick in the draft. While that pick adds a dynamic talent they’ve been missing, the Rangers almost certainly won’t be done this offseason after bolstering their prospect pipeline in Vancouver. As McKenzie would go on to say, “...they’re going to also do other things, and that is dip into free agency or any player that’s available in a trade.”

”They want to get better in a hurry,” he’d say in conclusion of the Rangers during his radio spot.

Panarin is an undeniable star in the NHL. Since joining the league in 2015-16, he’s eighth in points (320) and has 116 goals in 322 games. It’s more than reasonable that the Rangers would show interest in him. But should he opt not to reciprocate — and as Mike Murphy explored earlier this offseason, that’s a possibility with the Florida Panthers in the mix for him — New York won’t be left holding the proverbial bag (of money).

This year’s free agent class is largely a two horse race — Panarin and Karlsson — but could be home to a slew of consolation prizes behind each of them.

Find it in Free Agency?

Would the Rangers look to Panarin’s short-time running mate in Matt Duchene? The 28-year-old was dealt to Columbus at the trade deadline and picked up 12 points in 23 games down the stretch before averaging a point-per-game through ten postseason games in which he helped to carry the Jackets into their first-ever playoffs series victory — a sweep over the Presidents Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round.

Duchene would no doubt shore up the Rangers’ thin-for-now center depth, though likely at nothing resembling a discount given the reported range on an extension with Ottawa that was worth upward of $75 million over eight years.

What about Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner? The 27-year-old is coming off of a 40-goal season with the Sabres and has yet to ink an extension. The closer he gets to free agency, the stronger his urge to test it will grow. The Rangers, who finished 24th in goals-per-game last season, would surely benefit from his offensive prowess.

Predominantly a left winger, there may be no better alternative to Panarin on the market than Skinner, who would presumably fill the same scoring void should the Rangers miss out on the Russian star.

There’s also a pair of rival forwards the Blueshirts have come to know very well in Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee to consider.

Eberle, 29, had 19 goals and 37 points with the Islanders this season and went on to score 9 points in 8 playoff games. Should the Rangers end up not selecting right winger Kaapo Kakko with the second overall pick this June, Eberle could slot in nicely on the right side of the team’s second line if the price is right — an evergreen theme regarding free agency if there ever was one.

Lee, 28, scored 28 goals and could be of logical interest should New York opt to move Chris Kreider, a year away from free agency himself. Though it’s more than fair to question if awarding a player like Lee a long-term contract at his age is wise; especially given the likelihood his extension could prove more expensive than one they could offer the devil they know.

Then again, the idea of the Islanders losing their captain in back-to-back seasons, especially to their bitter rivals, would certainly make the idea of Lee more palatable, if not morbidly attractive. It would certainly qualify as humorous, if nothing else.

To round out the open market, it’s not impossible that Jeff Gorton could entertain the idea of return tickets to a pair of players he sent packing for futures at the deadline in Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. Though, at least in case of the latter, he seems quite happy in his new home.

Test the Trade Winds?

Of course, Gorton could find that the prices and/or term lengths for free agents are too rich for his blood. Or, in anticipation of such, he could decide to get proactive. In either case, it’s entirely plausible that the trade market could bear riper fruit.

The team has not-so-surreptitiously been linked to Evgeni Malkin, because of course they have. How serious the Penguins are about making serious changes to their team after their embarrassing opening round sweep at the hands of the Islanders remains to be seen, but even if the 32-year-old escapes the chopping block, his four-year running mate, Phil Kessel, probably won’t.

The Rangers’ front office could also try a craftier approach. Offering salary relief to a cap-crunched team who have multiple high-priced players to extend like the Winnipeg Jets might even net New York a player of real value — one of significantly more worth than they might get via a traditional cap dump.

Would Kevin Cheveldayoff be amenable to moving Nik Ehlers? The 23-year-old has seen his average ice time fall over the last three seasons alongside his scoring totals but is under contract for another six seasons at a $6 million average.

“Go Nik, Go,” right to Broadway?

Make ‘em an Offer Sheet They Can’t Refuse?

Or maybe will this finally be the summer of the offer sheet? There’s no shortage of young restricted free agents prime to be poached, albeit at tremendous cost. That is, if Gorton is truly serious about landing one.

The Lightning’s Brayden Point and the Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner both come to mind here.

The idea of giving up four first-round picks — which, let’s be real, is likely the bracket they need to play ball in — even for players as good as Point or Marner, isn’t a comfortable one. But if any team can justify it, it’s the Rangers. Come the end of the first night of the Draft this June, the Blueshirts will likely have drafted at least seven players in the opening round over the last three seasons, on top of acquiring first-round talent Adam Fox earlier this month.

The second overall pick will land them a franchise-altering player, be it Kakko or Jack Hughes, and the club’s ninth overall pick in last year’s Draft, Vitali Kravstov, has signed his entry-level deal and is expected to make the team out of camp this fall.

That collection of talent can go a long way in mitigating the impact of losing their next four opening round selections starting in 2020. Especially if the Rangers become a playoff team and find themselves in the second half of the draft order in those years.

Whatever the route Gorton opts for, Panarin, who would cost the team only money, is clearly one of the most attractive options. But it’s not Artemi or bust. At least it doesn’t have to be.

New York’s general manager could simply decide on more patience (and more pain by way of), but this offseason feels awfully primed for an accelerant.

Though the Rangers will need to be cautious with just how much of their precious cap room they use, and on whom, this particular offseason appears rife with alternatives — many of whom would expedite matters as New York seeks to finalize their transition from rebuild to built.