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The Buyout Game

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What will Gorton do with Staal and Smith?

New York Rangers v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The NHL’s buyout window will open on June 15, which is just three days after the scheduled date of Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (should it be necessary). That window closes on June 30 at 5 p.m. EST. In that time frame, several NHL front offices will need to pull the trigger on what is always a difficult decision.

The Rangers have veteran defensemen Marc Staal, Brendan Smith, and Kevin Shattenkirk under contract for the next two years. Together, they command $16.7 million of cap space — or 20.12% of next year’s $83 million cap. More importantly, they also represent a logjam whose presence threatens to stymie the development of emerging young blueliners.

While it’s true that Shattenkirk carries the largest cap hit of that trio ($6.65 million AAV), he is also the most effective and has the highest trade value. Buying out Shattenkirk would save the Rangers a little over $5 million in cap space for the upcoming season, but less than $600k in 2020-21. All things considered, it makes far more sense to keep him or deal him.

The same cannot be said of Staal and Smith.

Most consider buying out one of the two Canadian defenders to be inevitable, especially after the Adam Fox trade added another NHL-ready player to the flume. On last week’s Bantering the Blueshirts podcast, a listener asked if the Rangers might consider buying out both Staal and Smith. At first blush, the idea seems pretty radical.

The Rangers are already entering the 2019-20 season with $900k of retained salary from the Ryan Spooner trade and Dan Girardi’s $3,611,111 buyout penalty on the books. All told, that’s just over $4.5 million of dead cap space.

CapFriendly.com informs us that the Rangers have $19,036,391 of cap space to work with next season. The Rangers have five RFAs on their current roster, including Fredrik Claesson who will likely be out of the picture because of the team’s surplus of defensemen. Using the Evolving-Wild twins’ contract projections, one estimate for the combined cap hit of Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Lemieux, Anthony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk is something in the neighborhood $9.2 million.

Of course, that figure is just an estimate based on probabilities and comparable contracts. With that being said, it does give us an idea of how much money Gorton might have to work with in his pursuit of Artemi Panarin or another big ticket free agent. That number, including the estimated cap hits of the four aforementioned RFAs, is roughly $9.8 million. That number could change significantly if Gorton deals Chris Kreider, Jimmy Vesey, Vladislav Namestnikov, or even Pionk, but for the moment we are focused on the players who are here right now.

Buying out both Staal and Smith would save the Rangers just over $6.1 million of cap space next season and roughly $3.2 million of cap space in 2020-21. After that, the Rangers would have $2,345,833 on the books for 2021-22 and 2022-23. Having both Staal and Smith out of the way would definitely clear the path for Fox, Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov, and others to make the team, but it would likely present a different set of challenges.

Data courtesy of CapFriendly.com

It’s also important to remember that the buyouts of Staal, Smith, and Girardi would take up $7,481,944 of the cap next season and $7,956,944 in 2021-22 — that’s 9.01% of the cap in the first year and 9.58% in the second (of the current $83 million cap). Mercifully, that penalty would drop to a more palatable $3,456,944 for the following two seasons.

That’s a lot of dead cap space for the next two years, especially if the Rangers have an $11 million AAV Panarin contract on the books. It’s even trickier because every ounce of cap space can be critical to a team that’s trying to contend. However, Gorton could navigate around that problem because of the number of cost-controlled ELCs that will take up little cap space for the next few years. Unless the Rangers stray from the path in free agency or make costly investments in expendable players like Jimmy Vesey, there’s a chance that this could work.

So, the real question here might be what kind of value a player like Staal might represent. In addition to being a leader, a lifelong Ranger, and a popular member of the locker room, Staal eats up a lot of difficult minutes. If he is out of the picture, the Rangers would need to replace him from within or sign a free agent. Without Staal and Smith in the picture, the Rangers would also have a dearth of experience on defense. Experience is not the be all and end all, but it is an asset, especially for a team that projects to be as young as the 2019-20 Rangers.

Excluding Staal and Smith, next year’s blue line would look something like: Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Tony DeAngelo, Fox, Pionk, and one or two of Yegor Rykov, Libor Hajek and/or a depth UFA signing. There’s an even a chance that the Rangers retain Claesson and use him as a veteran staple, but it seems unlikely. Depending on what happens in free agency, that would be a very inexperienced group. Finding a way to shelter a rookie (or two) on that blue and guys with defensive shortcomings like Pionk and/or DeAngelo would be a serious challenge.

New York Rangers v Minnesota Wild Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

One could make a case that keeping one of Staal or Smith might be a boon to the team. It could enable Quinn to shelter a player like Fox by throwing Staal or Smith to the lions. Of course, one also has to ask what that would do to the performance of that player’s defensive partner. And that is a crucial question to raise after we saw Staal and Pionk play more than 668 minutes of 5v5 together last year.

It’s hard to say if buying out Staal and Smith would best serve the rebuild because of all of the unknowns. Will the Rangers sign Panarin or Erik Karlsson? Will they move Pionk? How do John Davidson, Gorton, and Quinn view the role of a veteran like Staal on a rebuilding blue line? How many of the Rangers’ young defensemen are ready to make the jump to the NHL next year? Remember, last year Gorton acquired Adam McQuaid even though he had Pionk, DeAngelo, and Claesson in the mix. There is also something to be said about letting prospects over-marinate in the minors. Yes, we’re looking at you, Edmonton.

There are over half a dozen promising young defensemen in the system, but most of them are a few years away from being ready. The logjam is coming, but it might be best to get one burdensome contract out of the way instead of two. Big picture, this problem will eventually solve itself when Shattenkirk and Staal/Smith come off the books on July 1, 2021. But do the Rangers want to solve it sooner?

Maybe there will be an unforeseen development that changes what seems like the most prudent path. But until that happens, the most likely outcome is that the Rangers will drop the axe on one, not two, contracts in the buyout window.

All salary cap data and buyout calculations courtesy of CapFriendly.com. Time in ice data courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.