Exactly two weeks remain until the opening round of the NHL’s Entry Draft on June 21. For many young NHL hopefuls, it will represent the start of their path to starring on Broadway. For numerous current Rangers, however, it will feel more like a eulogy.
With a logjam on defense — one made “worse” by the Blueshirts’ announcement that they’ve signed Tarmo Reunanen to an entry-level deal — and a glut of forwards clogging up roster lanes, it’s more than expected that New York will begin moving bodies just as soon as they can.
Something has to give on the blue line in order to improve the team’s fortunes. An infusion of youth from within their system, which may come in the form of Adam Fox and a healthy Libor Hajek, should help. So would acquiring Jacob Trouba. But the inn’s currently full and evictions are required to make room for any of them.
Up front, again it’s a full house. Presuming no roster changes, there are twelve viable NHL players who could return; two of whom — Brendan Lemieux and Pavel Buchnevich — require new extensions. Not included in that list? Vitali Kratsov or Kaapo Kakko — the latter of whom the Rangers are expected to select with the second overall pick this year. If not Kakko, add another center into the mix with Jack Hughes.
All of which begs the question: who will be the odd man — men? — out?
Ahead you’ll find something of a checklist regarding players with awfully uncertain futures in Rangers’ blue:
The Fate of the Forwards
First up: Chris Kreider. With a year remaining on his team-friendly deal, one of the most important calls Gorton will make as a Rangers’ executive will be on whether or not to extend the 28 year old. If the answer is no, given the predicament of not exactly being a Cup-contending squad or fear of what the backend of his next deal could look like, New York’s general manager will have little choice but to make Kreider the latest victim of the rebuild by trading him for more manageable assets.
Over the last five seasons, no Ranger has more goals in either the regular season (114) or the playoffs (12) than Kreider. The former 19th overall pick is tied with Jesper Fast in total postseason games over that same span with 36.
Should Gorton green light the idea of a move, there will be no shortage of suitors to show interest in Kreider. The winger would undoubtedly land them a third first-round selection in this year’s draft. And then some.
Vladislav Namestnikov can’t be safe. Signed to a two-year extension early last summer, Namestnikov is entering the final year of his contract. With that in mind, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the utilitarian forward is flipped to give New York more breathing room this offseason.
Though no longer riding shotgun to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov has taken a toll on his output, the 26 year old remains a strong two-way player with no quit in his efforts to chase down loose pucks. While $4 million for 11 goals and 31 points wasn’t ideal, the ability to retain could prove all the sweetener needed to facilitate a draft day deal.
Sticker price aside, a healthy market could manifest.
Then there’s Jimmy Vesey to consider. Though something of a victim of his own hype, the former Hobey Baker winner isn’t entirely without NHL-level talent, albeit not renowned for his consistency.
Over the last two seasons, the 26 year old has still managed to net 34 goals and 63 points across 160 games.
But with better opportunities needed for younger players with longer futures in New York, at 26, the final year on Vesey’s ticket is one that would arguably benefit the Rangers more served on another club’s roster.
And what to do about Ryan Strome? While the Rangers surely benefitted from the byproduct of his shooting percentage this past season, just how dedicated is Gorton to Strome’s final year ahead of free agency?
Though he finished the season as New York’s most productive forward with 15 points in his final 20 games, the combination of his age and free agent status make a potential buyout of his final year one worth considering.
Should the Rangers go down that path, they’d be looking at roughly $400,000 in dead cap this season, followed by just north of $500,000 next year. All-in-all, a buyout would equal a cap savings grand total of approximately $2.1 million over that time frame.
Buying him out would be a unique situation, since those are typically reserved for costly contracts that weigh down the salary cap. With Strome’s production in mind, it may not line up, but it’s an option nonetheless to clear both cap space and roster space. What may be more likely, especially if general managers focus more on his production in New York than in Edmonton, is a trade. His time in a Rangers’ sweater surely must have increased his trade value from November, when he joined the team. If not at the draft, he could still be on the clock as a deadline transaction.
Strome’s would-be subtraction could also carve a path for Filip Chytil to find his way back to the middle of the ice, too.
Lastly, regarding the forwards, it’s probably fair to question the Rangers’ commitment to Pavel Buchnevich, particularly in the face of potential trade opportunities. The aforementioned Trouba comes to mind here.
Short of outright shopping the 24-year old Russian, can the Rangers resist the temptation to improve elsewhere at his expense? Especially without a clearer understanding of what his extension will look like.
On the blue line, where things are even more crowded, relief is needed. The fastest route to it will probably come through Brendan Smith, who it’s hard to imagine will escape both the buyout window and a possible draft day deal.
Smith made the best of a bad situation, even serving as a fourth-line forward at points last season, but as I wrote about in May, is unlikely to square his cap hit with his play. While cap room isn’t yet an issue, it quickly could become one given the Rangers’ reported interest in players like Panarin and Karlsson.
If for no other reason than this, the Rangers should look to get out from under the deal, whether by buyout or trade.
Speaking of bad situations, the idea of the Blueshirts moving on from Kevin Shattenkirk feels like it’s getting more real by the day. What started as a distant war drum beaten by the likes of Larry Brooks and Brett Cyrgalis has grown in audible proximity, now reaching TSN’s Trade Bait List where the 30-year-old clocks in at number nine this offseason.
Like a walking Murphy’s law test subject, almost everything that could have gone wrong for Shattenkirk has since his decision to join his hometown Blueshirts. Despite superior underlying numbers and quality production when healthy, from injuries to healthy scratches, Shattenkirk’s stability is wavering, and for good reason.
As his health continues to be problematic, he’s also unlikely to get any better as he ages. Meanwhile, a path will need to be carved for fellow right-siders, Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo, should the latter remain a Ranger for the long-term.
Shattenkirk is a player who needs quality power play time to make right by his cost, but so too will DeAngelo in this scenario, while Adam Fox — who’s game has been compared to Shattenkirk’s — will no doubt be knocking on the same door. Too many power play quarter backs, right-handed quarterbacks to be specific, not enough power play time.
Something’s gotta give.
Speaking of, has DeAngelo finally put in enough of a sample size to build a future in blue? He’s due a new deal, but always feels like he’s one incident away from burning another NHL bridge.
EvolvingWild projects a six-year extension worth north of $4.5 million per season for DeAngelo — a quality offensive player who appeared to turn a corner last season — with a roughly equal probability of either a two- or five-year alternative.
But if his future isn’t in blue, then whatever it is, with whomever it’s with, should be determined quickly as there’s never a shortage of teams looking for puck-moving defenders.
Moving on, as younger and more promising reinforcements begin to assemble on the horizon, how off base would it be envision the Rangers simply not qualifying 26-year-old Fredrik Claesson? If they can’t trade him first, of course.
Claesson is a competent defender with respectable underlying numbers, but with just six points through 37 games, he’s hardly the type of player worth tripping over to keep. If someone comes knocking, it’s hard to imagine Gorton would balk. Not with the quality of youngsters he’s got also knocking on the proverbial door.
Counter to DeAngelo is Neal Pionk, who EvolvingWild project a two-year bridge deal for worth just south of $3 million annually. Everything DeAngelo is (at least offensively), Pionk isn’t, so while most of the conversation regarding moving on from him is fan-driven, it’s not without warrant.
According to Corsica, over the last two seasons, among defenders who’ve played in at least 100 games over that span, just nine skaters have a worse Corsi than Pionk (44.32 percent). Moreover, over that same span, among active Rangers defenders, he ranks dead last in relative CF% (-3.06).
What kind of trade market Gorton can build for a player with as many visible warts as Pionk remains to be seen, but stranger things have happened.
While much of the work Gorton has put in to this point of the Rangers’ rebuild is worthy of praise, a significant transitionary period awaits. That period can probably be alleviated some by signing a pending free agent like Panarin but will still be largely determined by the roster shuffling Gorton will direct beginning in just a few weeks.
It’s unlikely the Blueshirts will go from basement to contention in a single offseason, but that’s not to suggest they can’t take a major step (or two) forward this summer.
Second overall is easy. Architecting the right trades, less so. But a couple of big wins on that front can have a dramatic effect on just how long Gorton’s team remains on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Get ready, Rangers. You’re about to be on the clock.