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Rangers Need to Hold on to Chytil

Filip Chytil is becoming an excellent player, but can the cap-crunched Rangers keep him long-term?

New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

PING!

It was an all-too-familiar sound for the New York Rangers, as it feels like an absurd number of their shot attempts this season have struck iron and stayed out of the net.

On Monday night, however, that sound signified better fortune. Filip Chytil’s overtime shot from the right circle clipped the far post before going into the net, giving the Rangers a huge comeback victory over the formidable New Jersey Devils.

While it was a big moment and big victory for the Rangers in the short term, Chytil’s winning tally was just the latest in a series of mounting evidence that he needs to be a long-term fixture on the Blueshirts’ roster.


Taking a Closer Look at Chytil

The Rangers had two first-round picks in 2017. Their first was the seventh overall pick of that draft, who turned out to be Lias Andersson. The pick felt misguided at the time, and sure enough, it did not work out.

New York’s second pick of that draft, however, was Chytil at No. 21 overall. He impressed early on after being selected, and got a nine-game cup of coffee in the NHL in the ensuing 2017-18 season, getting on the board with a goal and two assists.

In the four seasons that followed, Chytil would become a lineup mainstay, but would never top 14 goals or 23 points in a regular season. While showing the occasional flash of promise, Chytil battled inconsistency, minor injuries, bad luck, and perhaps some poor coaching/lineup decisions.

Last postseason, though, was Chytil’s breakout. Centering the “Kid Line” that also featured Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko, Chytil scored seven goals in 20 postseason games. More notably, he erupted for five of those goals over a three-game span of Game 6 and Game 7 second-round victories over the Carolina Hurricanes, and a Game 1 victory in the Eastern Conference Final over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Following that latter game, Chytil appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter as an interviewee of host Scott Van Pelt — something I never could have imagined occurring.

Chytil seems to have leveraged that postseason explosion as a launch pad for this season. Despite missing a handful of games due to injury, Chytil has still managed to total 14 points (six goals and eight assists) in 22 games played. I.e., he’s well on his way to destroying his previous career-best scoring totals.

Those scoring totals are even more impressive when considering that they’re all at even strength, as Chytil gets minimal power-play time because of how many minutes the Rangers’ veteran-heavy top unit eats up. Chytil doesn’t get top-line minutes either; his total average ice time per game this season is 14:33. (That is partially skewed by an injury he suffered on Oct. 23 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, which resulted in only 11 seconds of ice time in that game, but the point remains that he is not getting the same ice time as the Blueshirts’ veteran forwards.)

Chytil is thus making the most of his opportunities; per Natural Stat Trick, he ranks 34th in the entire NHL in even-strength points per 60 minutes, with 2.85. That’s ahead of several big names, including Auston Matthews, Mikko Rantanen, and Mitch Marner. It’s also the top mark on the Rangers.

That’s great when it comes to offensive production. But Chytil has grown into a strong two-way center, as evidenced by his defensive impacts. Per the Hockey Viz heat maps below, the Rangers give up noticeably fewer scoring chances than league average with Chytil on the ice at five-on-five. Without No. 72, their expected goals-against per 60 minutes goes from 2.42 up to 2.68, which is much closer to league average.

Via Hockey Viz
Via Hockey Viz

The Rangers’ Looming Cap Crunch

Chytil, who only just turned 23 in September, has taken a few years to reach this point, but is trending toward becoming a recent Rangers first rounder who will have panned out. His development also offers hope for the club’s more recent lottery picks.

He brings size, speed, and skill to the lineup, and now his confidence appears to be soaring as he is finally rounding out his complete game. Given all this, one would surmise that he will be part of the long-term future of the Rangers.

What complicates the matter, however, is the salary cap crunch that is going to hit the Rangers as they put together their roster for next season. For a full season, they are only about $1.6 million under the current cap. They have unfortunately locked themselves into some pretty expensive, long-term contracts laden with no-trade or no-movement clauses. They’ve done this without locking up all of the youngsters who are so critical to the team’s future.

While some of the veterans under big contracts are worth the money, at least for now (e.g., Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Artemiy Panarin), others (e.g., Jacob Trouba and Barclay Goodrow) are eating up precious cap space while not fully living up to their contract value on the ice. Then there’s Vincent Trocheck, who is very much an effective player, but who — as Chytil looks to make the leap to full-time No. 2 center — is more of a luxury who makes the cap squeeze even tighter.

There had been brief hope for a significant cap increase of at least $4 million for next year. However, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman just recently poured cold water on that notion, which means the Rangers are likely back to square one with their self-induced cap crunch.

Chytil, whose current bridge contract carries an average annual value (AAV) of $2.3 million, will be a restricted free agent in need of a new deal after this season. If he keeps up this level of play, his raise will be significant. Also in need of new contracts will be Lafrenière and K’Andre Miller, and Kakko the year after next. Miller, in particular, will see a big increase from his entry-level AAV of only $925,000, given his importance to the Rangers’ blue line. Other expiring contracts will be Vitali Kravtsov’s $875,000, Sammy Blais’s $1.525 million, Julien Gauthier’s $800,000, Jimmy Vesey’s $750,000, Libor Hajek’s $800,000 and Jaroslav Halak’s $1.5 million.

No matter how you slice it, before the puck drops next season, the Rangers will have to make some sacrifices to ice a cap-compliant roster. They need to hold on to promising youngsters like Lafrenière and Miller. More than ever, though, Chytil is demonstrating why New York can’t afford to lose him either. That might necessitate the departure of some well-liked veterans, but the Rangers need to think about the future as well as the present, and Chytil fits both time frames.