As the ink dried on his deal, the signing of Artemi Panarin cemented two key factors the Rangers will need to deal with in the coming weeks and months heading into next season.
The first — bordering on the obvious — is that the short-term expectations of the team have clearly hastened, with the playoffs less of a long shot and more of a goal next season, at least as a wild card seed. The second — a direct affect of Panarin’s decision — is that the Rangers will now need to move bodies to accommodate his $11.6 million cap hit, as they have a number of critical RFAs left to sign and a little more than $7 million in available cap room to do it.
Shedding cap is now a requirement as the makeover continues, but it’s also not without its own complications. Should the Rangers subtract as expected by exploring the market on players such as Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Strome, and possibly Chris Kreider — likely in deals in which New York takes little to no salary back — they’ll simultaneously open holes in their own roster by doing so.
Assuming a reality in which the Rangers have traded (or will) any combination of the aforementioned players, opportunities in New York’s bottom-six will be ripe for the taking.
To fill those holes, the Rangers could look internally, opting to give opportunities to even more would-be rookies. Doing so wouldn’t just be cost-friendly, but would continue to make younger a roster that’s already slated to be one of the youngest in the NHL next year. But there’s a breaking point to the benefit of youth when a playoff berth is top of mind. Sheep need shepherds, after all.
Which is why a second dip into free agency is probably in order. The run on premium talent has been depleted, but the market isn’t devoid of value that the Rangers can still benefit from.
As of this writing, Pontus Aberg, 25, is available. The speedy Swede has a versatile 200-foot game and comes with the added benefit of being able to line up on either wing. Aberg spent time split between the NHL and AHL last season, as well as between Anaheim and Minnesota, but still managed a respectable 25 points in 59 games, including 12 goals.
Aberg has played for four different teams in the last two seasons, but has averaged nearly 0.40 points per game (P/GP) over that span — a rate of production that would parallel Namestnikov at a fraction of the price.
Devante Smith-Pelly — another fantastic skater — is also looking for a new home after the Capitals decided not to offer him another return ticket following a disappointing season. At 27, he’s unlikely to dramatically improve, but 8 points in 54 games for a career 0.26 P/GP player could be something of an aberration.
Smith-Pelly, who recorded over 160 minutes short-handed, could also give David Quinn another forward option for his penalty-kill, which could use a bit of help given it was fifth-worst in the NHL last season. Without Kevin Hayes, Mats Zuccarello, and possibly Namestnikov, the Rangers will be without key penalty-killers from 2018-19.
There’s also no discounting Smith-Pelly’s ability to step up big in the postseason, which could be hugely beneficial if the Rangers qualify for them. Smith-Pelly had an incredible seven-goal performance for the Capitals during their 2018 Cup-winning season, and had five goals in 12 games with the Anaheim Ducks in 2014.
There’s always Tobias Rieder, too. Yes, the same Rieder, 26, who failed to score a goal for the Oilers despite skating in 67 games last season. If not for his any-situation versatility, than to buy low on a player who should be highly motivated, if not champing at the bit, to stick it to Edmonton’s front office after being singled out by Bob Nicholson as the reason they missed the playoffs.
Rieder’s just a year removed from a 12-goal, 25-point split-season between Arizona and Los Angeles, where he averaged just shy of 15 goals a year over the three seasons prior. The Rangers tried for him the same summer that the Oilers landed him. Perhaps the second time’s the charm?
Or maybe Jeff Gorton will look where most general managers do, towards the middle of the ice, in improving his team’s depth. If that’s the case, then there’s likely no better quality player and person to sign than former New York Ranger, Brian Boyle.
Boyle topped my stopgap shopping list back in June, and still would today. Despite being well on the wrong side of 30, he’s maintained a respectable scoring rate for a bottom-six player over the last three seasons, including two playing for a cellar-dwelling New Jersey Devils club whom he registered 26 goals and 42 points for over 116 games.
Boyle’s ability to play both center and wing would be a boon here, too, in the event any of the Rangers’ current centers play so well that they force him to the outside. Plus, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better quality person, which can’t be discounted as the Rangers expect to transition rookies to regulars in a short amount of time over the next handful of seasons.
There’s also another ex-Ranger to consider in Derick Brassard.
It’s hard to find a player who has moved around more over the last two years than Brassard, who will likely be playing for his sixth team — seven, if you count the approximately seven hours he spent as a Vegas Golden Knight — when he eventually signs. But Brassard could still have enough gas left in the tank worth the one-year deal he’s likely to sign.
Since the Rangers traded the now 31-year-old, Brassard’s scoring totals have been trending in the wrong direction, culminating in a career-low 23 points in 70 games split between Pittsburgh, Florida, and Colorado last season. But as a veteran insurance policy of sorts expected to fill a bottom-six role, the Rangers wouldn’t be wrong to investigate the cost of a reunion.
Even if this is the player Brassard is now, the 0.33 P/GP pace he averaged across all three clubs last season would still result in a respectable points line given the expectations of the role he’d be asked to fill. Though it’s more than fair to question just how amenable Brassard would be to a short-term deal with no assurances of security — something he’d probably value heavily given the sheer number of hotels he’s been forced to live out of over the last 18 months.
No matter what route Gorton opts for, which could include offering any of theses players camp invitations rather than guaranteed contracts — a practice that could award him marginal flexibility against the summer cap — his work isn’t done yet. In many ways, it’s just begun. Making sure his playoff-hopeful roster has the correct balance of experience and excitement will go a long way in assuring that work is made right by.