Artemi Panarin is a New York Ranger. Celebrate. Scream. Cry with happy! Hug a stranger! Maybe ... actually ... don’t do that.
It’s early July, and the Rangers feel like the winners of the summer, and not just because they landed the biggest fish in the pond; they’ve done a lot of work the past few months shoring up a lot of the team’s needs on both sides of the puck. They’ve got work to do before becoming true Stanley Cup Contenders, but some of that work is simply letting the ingredients they already have in the pot marinate a little.
Panarin’s $11.64-million cap hit would have forced Jeff Gorton to tighten the belt a little regardless, but the situation becomes even more pressing thanks to his fantastic acquisition of Jacob Trouba. Trouba is the instant improvement the team so desperately needed on defense, but as a restricted free agent, he’s going to come with a hefty price tag in the $7.5-million range. That’s all well and good, but the Rangers’ plethora of cap space is quickly evaporating like water in a desert. It’s part of the reason why the team moved on from Jimmy Vesey before inking Panrin to his seven-year deal.
There will be instinctive and logical conversations about Chris Kreider and his impending free agency. Kreider is a fan favorite and a very, very good hockey player who impacts all three zones of the ice. He’s also going to be 29 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next year. Bigger players who rely on speed and their first step don’t generally age well. Neither do those who play in front of the net. So why invest in one who will have six or seven years left on a heavy extension as he enters his 30s?
With Kevin Hayes getting $7.14-million a year for seven years and Anders Lee getting his own seven-year deal worth $7-million a year, it really feels like the comparable contracts lean toward Kreider being in the same neighborhood. Are you comfortable paying Kreider $50-million for seven years when six of those years will be in his ageing 30’s? I’m not, and I love Kreider.
Let’s assume, however, the Rangers don’t want to make a decision on him yet. Or, rather, they do want to keep him.
As of this writing the Rangers have $8.019-million in “official” cap space. They will save some money when Matt Beleskey, Greg McKegg, and Libor Hajek go down to Hartford, but let’s run with that number right now since it’s close. Best guesses at the extensions for Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo, Trouba, and Brendan Lemieux are around $16-million combined.
Buchnevich seems to be the focus of the media, since they have suggested he’s been on the trading block for weeks and he’s never been a favorite in the papers. The RFA is projected to sign a bridge deal with the Rangers in the neighborhood of $3.2-million per year; fair value for someone of his status.
The idea that Buchnevich would be first in line to get the ax over players who don’t project to be in the long-term picture is puzzling. Vlad Namestnikov and his $4-million cap hit come off the books next summer, but that money has more use right now. The Rangers can probably keep Buchnevich and Lemieux for $4.5-million combined, so you can see how far that can money go. Namestnikov is a fantastic Swiss Army Knife, a guy who can literally be penciled anywhere in the lineup and succeed. There’s something to be said for having a guy like that around, especially when the lineup is full of kids. Still, it’s more important to give guys like Filip Chytil, Buchnevich, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden a chance to sink or swim, especially since there’s still no Cup expectations next year.
Then there’s Ryan Strome. Strome punched well above his weight last year, scored 18 goals in 63 games with the Rangers (on an insane shooting percentage spree), is young enough to not raise any alarms (25), and has the fifth overall pick label on his resume to boot. Tom explained why moving on from Strome was probably the right decision back in April, but it’s never been more true than right now. The Law of Averages is undefeated, and anyone who thinks Strome is going to shoot at 20%+ again next year is probably also willing to buy this bridge I have to sell them. Banking on that is a mistake, and with the the sudden boon of smart analytical decisions from the front office, the hope is they realize that as well.
Strome’s $3.1-million cap hit isn’t enormous, but coupled with Namestnikov’s $4-million it becomes all Gorton needs to turn that $8-million of cap space currently into a nice fat bank of over $15-million, and that’s without touching Kreider or buying anyone out.
The Rangers will get some extra relief next year as well when they need to start thinking of a Kreider extension if that’s the road they want to walk down. Dan Girardi’s cap penalty shrinks from $3.6-million to $1.1-million next summer, instantly creating $2.5-million in space. If Kreider was willing to take a $7-million extension, Gorton would be able to use Kreider’s current cap hit ($4.65-million) and the Girardi savings to fit him into the fold without doing anything else.
That still leaves issues down the road, but the Rangers will create over $25-million in space in two years with Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith, Marc Staal, and Henrik Lundqvist coming off the books — which will help soak up some of those bridge deals that will need to be re-upped into longer term contracts. But then Mika Zibanejad has to be signed the year after. Although the cap might go up in two years with a new TV deal. Well, what if there’s another lockout ...
You get the point.
The main takeaway here is Buchnevich shouldn’t be remotely moved as a cap casualty. Nor should someone like DeAngelo. The Rangers have movable assets who they can and should move on from to make room for right now.
Then you can figure out Kreider.