For a Rangers team that has done a whole lot of building upwards the last few weeks - Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and now Artemi Panarin - there’s still perhaps some tearing down left to be done.
Jimmy Vesey, a notable piece of the team’s future only a couple years ago, was sent to Buffalo on Monday for a third-round pick. There could be other departures to come, with forwards Vlad Namestnikov and Ryan Strome possibly on the chopping block, while a cluttered defense could spell the end for Brendan Smith or Kevin Shattenkirk; or perhaps both.
The spotlight, though, immediately shifts to Chris Kreider, whose situation became even more unsettled with the Bread Man’s arrival. The Rangers hardly seemed eager to get a new contract done with Kreider — who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this time next year — prior to Panarin’s arrival. With a new superstar left wing on the books for seven years, the Blueshirts’ desire to hang onto No. 20 has surely lessened.
There were plenty of reasons to part ways with Kreider even before this summer’s massive paradigm shift. The 2009 first-round pick will be pushing 30 years old at the start of his next contract, meaning that his best hockey will surely be behind him. Premium contracts for aging, non-elite players are quite often regrettable. The few tolerable ones are for teams in a position to seek instant gratification. A team like San Jose or Boston will take their lumps down the road if it means a Cup or two in the near future. As much as the Rangers are trending upwards, their opportunity as bonafide contenders is still a few years off.
The Rangers could make the finances work for 2019-2020 and even 2020-2021, no doubt. Buyouts and/or trades of some combination of Strome, Namestnikov, Smith, Shattenkirk, and Marc Staal would create the necessary room to keep Kreider around.
The Rangers are building for the next decade, though, and it’s the long-term vision that makes the numbers hard to square. As noted, they’ve already committed to Panarin long-term. The draft lottery also changed the entire complexion of the roster, as Kakko figures to complete the one-two punch alongside Panarin. If Kakko and 2018 ninth overall pick Vitali Kravtsov grow even within range of their expectations, then they will need major pay increases in three years. Pavel Buchnevich, too, will need a major financial commitment either this summer or after a potential impending bridge deal expires.
That’s a lot of cap space to allocate to four wingers who fit into a long-term vision. Paying Kreider more than $6 million per season to quite possibly be the fourth- or fifth-best winger on the team at that point would seem like malpractice in a salary cap league that leaves little room for error or luxury. At that point, the money allocated to Kreider becomes a drain on resources available for building a capable group of centers, defensemen, and goaltenders.
The Rangers should keep in contact with Kreider’s agent regarding an extension because there’s nothing to lose by doing so. Shattenkirk took a four-year deal sign with the Rangers. Perhaps Kreider, too, would be willing to make a sacrifice to stay in New York.
If not, then there’s no reason for the Rangers to allow this to drag on for too long. The market for Kreider is probably not equal to what it looked like at the draft, but the remaining teams that missed out on a big on July 1 addition won’t find a better available talent. The Rangers would be wise to cash in on Kreider now rather than let the situation linger awkwardly in the locker room during the season, and they certainly will get more in return now rather than as a late-season rental.
Kreider’s prime does not quite align with the Rangers’ path towards the Stanley Cup, and it’s an unfortunate outcome. But there’s no reason they can’t exchange him for assets that more properly fit the team’s vision. Though it would be yet another exit for a beloved Ranger from a past era of success, this one would feel different. This is not a liquidation effort, but rather one of asset management. The Rangers are beginning to reap the rewards of seeds sowed the last two years, and new players are now ready to take the torch that Kreider has so steadily held for so long.