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The cap crunch

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What kind of money does Gorton have to work with for the team’s four key RFAs?

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Now that Artemi Panarin is on the books with the second-highest AAV in the league at $11,642,857 per year and Jacob Trouba and Pavel Buchnevich have both filed for salary arbitration, the Rangers have a lot to consider in regards to the salary cap.

Naturally, the Rangers’ top priority is extending Trouba long term. Jeff Gorton wants to get this contract right, especially after some of the mixed feelings that have developed since Brady Skjei signed his six-year, $31.5 million deal a little over a year ago. The average annual value of Trouba’s deal is expected to exceed $7 million, which makes things very interesting for the Rangers with Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo, and Brendan Lemieux all needing extensions.

A quick glance at CapFriendly.com tells us that the Rangers have a little over $8 million in projected cap space, but that number does not represent how much cap Gorton actually has to play with.

Let’s get into the numbers.

The Kids

Kaapo Kakko is not listed on Cap Friendly’s roster for the Rangers because he has yet to sign his entry-level contract, which will carry a maximum salary of $925,000. Vitali Kravtsov is currently listed as a non-roster forward, but, like Kakko, he is expected to be in the lineup for the Blueshirts come October.

Together, Kakko and Kravtsov will take up a combined $1.85 million in cap space for the next three seasons, one of the many reasons it pays to develop your own talent.

Libor Hajek and his $833,333 cap hit are currently counted against the Rangers’ salary cap on Cap Friendly, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be playing with the big club when things get going this fall. As things currently stand, the Rangers have five NHL defensemen under contract and two NHL defensemen who are RFAs. Unless Hajek blows the Rangers’ coaching staff away in training camp, it’s likely he’ll be in Hartford for some more seasoning.

Although it would be a stretch to call him a kid, Greg McKegg is also on the Rangers’ salary cap with a one-way, one-year deal worth $750,000. For now, we’ll count McKegg and Boo Nieves as extra depth forwards that will be with the big club.

Buried

As a result of Gorton’s offseason moves and the need to infuse young talent into the lineup, there is a good chance that both Matt Beleskey and Brendan Smith’s contracts will be buried in the AHL.

Together, their contracts take up $6.25 million in combined cap space when they’re on the NHL roster — which is what we currently see on Cap Friendly. The CBA states that the cap hit for a buried contract is equal to the difference of the minimum salary of the respective season plus an additional $375,000, which amounts to a $1.075 million cap relief for the next two seasons.

So, if Gorton buries Beleskey and Smith in the AHL their combined cap hit would be $4.1 million; or a savings of $2.15 million in cap. Burying them in the AHL also comes with the silver lining of making Hartford a better team on paper, which should hold plenty of appeal for new team president John Davidson.

Projections

If Gorton has Hajek, Smith, and Beleskey in the AHL, the Rangers will have $11,001,867 million in cap space instead of $8,018,534 . If we assume that Trouba’s contract will come with an AAV of $7.5 million, that leaves Gorton with just over $3.5 million to extend Buchnevich, DeAngelo, and Lemieux.

The Evolving Wild Twins’s contract projections will help us get an idea of what it will cost to bring back all of three RFAs. They project Buchnevich to sign a two-year deal with an AAV of $2,874,385; Lemieux to sign a two-year deal with an AAV of $993,510; and DeAngelo to sign a six-year deal with an AAV of $4,594,093. However, a two-year deal for DeAngelo with a $2,235,348 AAV seems more likely than a contract with more term because of the path that eventually brought him to the Rangers.

Again, these are all estimates, but together those three contracts come in with a combined cap hit of $6,103,243. When you add Trouba’s $7.5 million AAV, we’re up to a little over $13.6 million.

The Rangers are clearly going to have to make some moves, because they will be slightly over assuming these calculations come to fruition.

The Kreider Factor

Of course, there are players on the roster now who may not be in October. About one week ago, Adam Herman of Blueshirt Banter wrote about why the Rangers should deal Chris Kreider, a pending 28-year-old UFA who carries a $4.625 million cap hit. With the impending infusion of rookie wingers to the Rangers’ top-six forward group and the blockbuster signing of Panarin, Kreider has become a luxury that the Rangers may no longer be able to afford.

United States v Great Britain: Group A - 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia Photo by Lukasz Laskowski/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images

Of course, there are also those who think the Rangers need Kreider now more than ever. In Larry Brooks’ opinion, extending Kreider would come at the cost of locking up Buchnevich and would make a Vlad Namestnikov deal necessary. Gorton could also try to move pending UFA Ryan Strome and his $3.1 million cap hit if need be, but he might be hard-pressed to find a buyer.

With that being said, if the Rangers can bring Kreider back on a deal with term that carries an AAV of $6.75 million — which is what Brooks suggests — the Rangers would have just shy of $18.4 million wrapped up in two left wingers. To put that into context: Toronto Maple Leaf centers Auston Matthews and John Tavares take up a combined $22.634 million in cap space.

Trading Kreider would undoubtedly bring in a big return — and we know the team was shopping him at the 2019 Draft — which sounds a lot more appealing than giving him a deal similar to the seven-year, $49 million contract signed by crosstown rival Anders Lee.

The Second Buyout Window

Trouba and Buchnevich filing for salary arbitration gave the Blueshirts a second buyout window. The first buyout window expired on June 30, which means that the club missed the boat on buying out Strome.

From Cap Friendly:

Clubs whom have 1 or more arbitration filings may be permitted to perform a buyout outside of the regular window. This gives teams another opportunity to become cap compliant following an arbitration case.

We recently walked through what a buy outs for Brendan Smith, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Marc Staal would look like [Part 1] [Part 2], so we’ll abstain from going through it all again now.

If Brooks is right and the Rangers really can’t find a team willing to take on 50 percent of Shattenkirk’s $6.65 million AAV over the next two seasons, the best path forward for the Rangers is likely to keep Shattenkirk and hope that they can showcase him and build his worth. Of course, that will be a lot easier said than done with all of the right-handed defensemen with puck skills who project to make the lineup next season.

The Road Ahead

The good news for the Rangers is that the cap crunch they’re facing now will immediately become more manageable in the 2020-21 season. Coming into this season, the Blueshirts have $3,911,111 in dead cap space as a result of buying out Dan Girardi’s contract and retaining salary on Ryan Spooner’s contract. Spooner was initially dealt to the Edmonton Oilers but ended up with the Canucks, who bought him out earlier this offseason.

Starting in 2020-21, the combined penalties of Girardi and Spooner will take up $1,411,111 of the Rangers’ salary cap. That penalty decreases to $1,111,111 in the following two seasons before it comes off the books completely in 2023-24.

Of course, before that happens, the Rangers will have to deal with the 2021 Expansion Draft. Interestingly enough, that coincides with four contracts that represent $25.2 million in cap space coming off the books on July 1, 2021.

Needless to say, this roster is going to look drastically different before and after that date arrives. Hopefully, Gorton and the rest of the Rangers’ front office will invest in homegrown talent and continue to build through the draft to build a sustainable competitor for years to come.

All salary and contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.com.

Editor’s Note: Some of the wording in the “Buried” section has been changed since this article’s initial publication for greater clarity.