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New York Rangers’ Focus Can Shift to Artemi Panarin Ahead of NHL Free Agency

The UFA interview window opens today, and the Rangers are one team who should want to meet with Artemi Panarin

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

Since the whirlwind that was the 2019 NHL Draft has come and gone, teams now will shift their focus to free agency. In the case of the New York Rangers that means Artemi Panarin.

Today is the start of the unrestricted free agent interview window; a time in which teams are permitted to talk to free agents to gauge their interest in joining their franchise. Panarin is a player who is going to jump into the process headfirst, as he’s slated to meet with the Florida Panthers on Monday according to Bob McKenzie.

Panarin meeting with the Panthers isn’t all that surprising, and as Mike pointed out in an article weeks ago, there’s a lot of reason why Panarin would sign in Sunrise as opposed to Broadway.

The obvious example from Mike’s piece is the chance to play for Joel Quenneville, his former bench boss in Chicago. There’s also an impressive group of players on the roster, including Panarin’s friend Evgenii Dadonov, and there’s the fact that Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to sign there.

There’s a lot to like about the Panthers, and Panarin would be a great fit. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign there, and maybe he will do what it takes to become a Panther.

It’s just a possibility, though. As McKenzie pointed out, while they’d like to sign both, the priority is a goaltender. After seeing the tweet, I thought it would be worth looking into the matter more, especially after a few fans replied to my tweet suggesting I thought it would be hard for Florida to ink Panarin.

As it stands, the Panthers have 15 players under contract for next season, and $20,475,001 in cap space. This includes Roberto Luongo ($4,533,333, three years) and James Reimer ($3,400,000, two years). The goal for the Panthers is to free themselves of at least one of these netminders.

If the Panthers can’t find a trade partner for Reimer, per Cap Friendly, a buyout frees up $2,441,667 in cap space this season, $191,667 next season, and results in $658,333 in dead salary for the two seasons after that.

If Luongo were to retire, the Panthers would be on the hook for $1.29 million for the next three seasons as part of a cap recapture penalty (overall savings of $3,243,333). If he were to go on LTIR because he can’t start the season, the Panthers would be able to gain some space if they were to sign players that put them over the salary cap. Cap Friendly has all the details concerning LTIR here. Luongo going on LTIR would potentially open up a whopping $4.53 million in cap space, which would offset over half of the $8 million-plus Bobrovsky is expected to get as a free agent. I say potentially, because again, teams only get the space if they need it; it isn’t a bankable commodity.

But if he’s able to come back, the team would have to get back under the cap which is a possibility.

This is a delicate situation, because in order to be eligible, it would mean Luongo would have an injury that prevents him from playing. His hip injury nagged him for much of last season, and at age 40 he isn’t getting younger.

Based on what we know about Luongo, someone who is a future Hall of Famer, it’s hard to believe he wants his career to end like this, so it can’t be assumed that his money is just going to disappear. Anything is possible, and we should know more soon.

Focusing back on the free agents, It isn’t a stretch to assume that Bobrovsky comes in at $8 million to $8.5 million, and Panarin comes in at $11 million to $11.5 million. This puts the combo at a ticket of $19 million to $20 million which alone would eat up practically all of the Panthers’ cap space with the team still needing to fill out the remainder of the roster.

And while it is possible they can sign them first, and figure out the rest after, that’s easier said than done. It isn’t so much that the Panthers won’t free up space via a Luongo retirement/LTIR assignment or a Reimer trade or buyout, but that’s unlikely to be enough.

The Panthers have a number of roster spots to fill out, and if they are adding “Bread” and “Bob” they’d have to do it on the cheap.

If they were to replace their two UFAs with players making around $900,000 each — this could be depth players, or ones in the system on entry-level contracts such as Owen Tippett (74 points in 54 OHL games) — that’s an additional $2.7 million in salary. But is it realistic to replace all of their UFAs with players taking up less than $1 million in cap space? If they were to do the same with the three RFAs, that would be another $2.7 million. In total that’s $5.4 million to fill six roster spots assuming a low end salary.

If they were to go this route, the Panthers would hope Luongo goes on LTIR, as the difference of this hypothetical amount ($5.4 million) is just over the $4.53 million they’d be able to utilize. To get things as even as possible, they could promote someone like Cliff Pu ($745,000) to save some money.

If you look at the above, it is technically possible that the Panthers can field a team while signing Panarin and Bobrvosky, but it assumes a lot of things going their way in rounding out the rest of the roster, and getting relief by having one of their current netminders not count against the cap.

It also means having somewhat of a top heavy team, which may not help in the franchise’s pursuit of becoming a Stanley Cup contender. This means Panthers likely have to find other ways to create financial flexibility, and the ability to round out the roster that includes Panarin and Bobrovksy.

The problem is that they don’t have many players on the roster they can trade to free up space, let alone players they should trade. His name was listed as trade bait earlier this season, but under no circumstances should the Panthers consider trading Jonathan Huberdeau, especially when he was second in scoring on the team with 92 points last season.

Huberdeau makes $5.9 million for the next four seasons and has a NMC kick in on July 1. The 26-year-old has really come into his own in Florida, and he’s someone the Panthers should keep around if they are trying to build a contender.

Florida Panthers v Boston Bruins Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The obvious choice would be Mike Hoffman, mainly because he has a cap hit of $5,187,500 for one more season. Although Hoffman scored 70 points last season, if they add Panarin there’s a good chance that it would be tough to re-sign Hoffman as a free agent in 2020. Dealing him would be one way the team could free up space, and maybe get some valuable futures in the process, or some help on the blue line.

The problem they may run into is finding a team willing to take on Hoffman before July 1, because the salary cap for the 2019-20 season is lower than anticipated.

Another option could be Frank Vatrano, although his cap hit of $2.53 million doesn’t move the needle a whole lot, and there’s value having a 40-point player like him in the bottom six. Outside of that, there aren’t really any players who jump off the page unless they seriously consider moving one of their defenders who are signed long term like Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson. That, of course, gives them another task this offseason in finding affordable defensemen in a fairly thin free agent class, and it wouldn’t make sense to add in one area to only subtract from another.

Again, while it appears technically possible for the Panthers to add two marquee free agents, it would require everything to go the Panthers way, and would leave them with little flexibility if they had to up their offer if Panarin were to receive a competing offer from a team; such as the New York Rangers.

The Rangers, as things stand, have less cap space than the Panthers with $16,761,391 free, but they have 20 players signed for next season; assuming Kaapo Kakko inks his ELC. The team has four RFAs in Brendan Lemieux, Pavel Buchnevich, Jacob Trouba, and Tony DeAngelo.

If the Rangers wanted, they could offer Panarin $11 million+ right away, sign him, and then figure out the rest. But if the Rangers get a sense that Panarin’s coming to New York, they will more than likely make moves ahead of July 1 so it is easier to settle the rest of their affairs.

But humor me, and assume the Rangers lock up their RFAs, and then try and free up some space before signing Panarin on July 1.

If the Rangers sign Lemieux for $1 million, Buchnevich for $3 million, DeAngelo for $2.75 million, and Trouba for $7.5 million, the team would have a roster of 22 with $4,136,391 million in space. It is possible that the Rangers only take care of Trouba first, try and sign Panarin, and then deal with their remaining RFAs, but I provided this as an example to highlight what things would look like if they were to do things up front, and show much space they’d need to pen up.

Just over $4 million is obviously not enough for Panarin, but this also includes Vlad Namestnikov ($4 million) Ryan Strome ($3.1 million), Jimmy Vesey ($2.275 million) on the roster at forward. Odds are the Rangers could sell low on one of them, if needed, and recoup some cap space. Vesey’s an obvious one since he’s been linked to the Sabres, and if needed the Rangers would likely eat half of Vlad’s salary to free up $2 million.

There’s also Chris Kreider and his one-year remaining at $4.625 million, and he someone with obvious value. This is not to say that the Rangers look to trade him unnecessarily, but if and when they meet with Panarin there a sense he’s coming to New York, trade talks may once again kick into overdrive. If the Rangers think Panarin is going elsewhere, there’s no reason to trade Kreider right away, and instead talks could shift to signing him to a contract extension.

New York Rangers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

On defense, there’s also Brendan Smith ($4.35 million) and Kevin Shattenkirk ($6.65 million). Odds are one of them won’t be on the team next season. If needed, Smith could be assigned to Hartford, and that would open $1,075,000 in space. A buyout saves more, but then puts the Rangers in a tougher spot in upcoming seasons. The same would be true of Shattenkirk, from a buyout perspective.

So, while it is true that the Panthers currently have more space, they also have more spots to fill, which means less money to spend per player. The Rangers being so close to a full roster helps, and they have a number of pieces that can be cut lose if needed to make things work relatively easy, and some players internally who can back fill.

It is also easier for them to sign Panarin up front and then figure things out, because they have less work to do relatively speaking. Trouba is the only RFA who is slated to get a massive pay day; outside of that the team has some wiggle room.

But with all that said, it will be interesting to see when the Rangers meet with Panarin, and the moves they make after doing so. In many ways what happens with Panarin will decide the direction of their offseason. If he doesn’t sign with the Rangers, general manager Jeff Gorton has more than enough space to keep the RFAs and then he can look into opportunities via trade.

It his post draft media availability he stated that he doesn’t feel the team needs to do anything, and in many ways that is true.

He also mentioned the team could use buyouts depending on if there’s money they plan to spend, and reading between the lines could infer that Panarin, as he’s one of the few players who, if signed, would require the Rangers to move some money arround.

The team is rebuilding and Panarin would be a great way to accelerate things. But if they miss out on him they will have other options down the line.

Outside of the Panthers and Rangers, there’s also the chance Panarin ends up elsewhere, because opinions can change after meeting with a team and their management staff.

So while it speaks volumes that the Panthers are the first team Panarin is meeting with, it is still expected that the Rangers will make a push to sign him on July 1, and they will have the flexibility to sign him, and lock up their RFAs.

If I were a betting man, I’d say Bobrovsky goes to Florida, and makes a big difference for them. Although Panarin would be a great fit, and would really take the forward group to a new level they are in really good hands with their two point-per game forwards in Aleksandar Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau to lead the way, and will also have Dadonov (70 points in 82 games) and a healthy Vincent Trocheck. Henrik Borgstrom is a very interesting prospect with upside, as is Owen Tippett.

There’s always a chance if Panarin really wants to be a Panther, but I don’t see a way that makes sense, all things considered. I may be overlooking a scenario that makes it all fit, and if that’s the case, please let me know.

The Rangers’ roster is set to be full of entry-level players for the upcoming seasons, but Panarin would fill a gaping hole up front, and the fit would be a near perfect one.

So while today is the first day of the UFA interview period, it is just the beginning of another crazy week in the NHL. There will be tons of rumor and talk about what’s going on, but I think the Rangers actions over the course of the week will give us an inkling of the direction they are heading.

Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.