A Deeper Dive Into Free Agency

Editor’s Note: Our good friend Pat is back with some action on free agency! Give him a follow here.

We’ve made it to the other side everybody, and as in previous seasons when selling even a little bit the team is just not the same in terms of just the names on the depth chart, to say nothing of the attachment many felt towards our now-former Blueshirts. I recall the first time this feeling really struck me was when the Rangers first hit the ice in the postseason following the Gaborik trade, although I wasn’t exactly attached to him anyways. Rather, what really stood out was just how changed the lineup had become up and down, almost overnight. Last year I remember not thinking and just kind of reflexively looking for Rick Nash at a post-deadline game I went to with my dad, before remembering “ah yes, they traded him, duh.”

One way or another we’re in this place again, not unlike the first few days (weeks? months?) of a new year when you forget to modify the date to reflect another mutually-agreed-upon temporal marking of a lap around the sun. The Rangers lineup contains only four players who made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 at this point: Jesper Fast, Chris Kreider, Marc Staal, and of course Henrik Lundqvist. That’s a pretty radical turnaround in four years, a large portion of which happened at the las two trade deadlines. So, the big question then becomes: what do we want the Rangers lineup to look like now?

We can’t really tell unfortunately who we’ll acquire by trade (who had Brendan Lemieux on their trade deadline bingo card?), and drafting is even more conjecture – the audible gasp at the MSG draft event last summer when the Rangers picked Kravtsov instead of Wahlstrom was ridiculous – so today we’re going to be looking at free agency, arguably the sexiest roster move a GM can make. How might these guys, the big names, fit into the Rangers lineup, and are we cool with what there is altogether with the young guns in the lineup alongside them?

Let’s start with the biggest names: Artemi Panarin, Erik Karlsson, and I’m going to add Jeff Skinner in here as well because of the remarkable season he’s been having in Buffalo. We’re also going to stipulate for the purposes of this hypothetical that Lias Andersson, Brett Howden, Filip Chytil are all on the Rangers full time next season, and then modify things based on optimism or pessimism depending. Let’s also talk roster clearances via trade as we get there.

The biggest fish is Panarin. Contract details aside (he’ll get, at lowest, Mark Stone’s contract, or at most probably Tavares’s, but maybe even more) he’s obviously going to be on the top line, put it in the books. There’s simply no way you don’t play Panarin with Mika Zibanejad, and from there it’s most likely that one of three things happens. Chris Kreider plays on his off wing, since both he and Panarin are LWs, Pavel Buchnevich moves up the depth chart as the top RW on the team (and probably scores 100 points playing with those other two, just like the narrative we’ve been pushing says), or, and don’t rule this out because of the kind of role he plays, Jimmy Vesey stays as the 1RW (not objecting here necessarily).

From there your second line is looking like Kreider on the left, either Lias or Howden in the middle, and then Fast, Vesey, or Strome on the right. This isn’t world beating, but is probably formidable enough considering the guys ahead of them to be a real threat – matchups wouldn’t be easy because of the relatively talented third and/or fourth lines the Blueshirts would be icing. To wit: the bottom six here is some combination of Chytil, Namestnikov, or Lemieux down the left (Vlad obviously is fairly versatile, as is Chytil), whichever one of Howden or Andersson isn’t on the second line and presumably Nieves on the fourth line, and then whichever of Vesey, Fast, or Buchnevich don’t make it up the mountain.

This is a long way of saying that Panarin changes the game for the Rangers, quite literally. Other teams are going to have to deal with two serious scoring threats on the left – both he and Kreider can absolutely victimize defensemen down the wing with their speed and skill – not to mention some fairly other good players in Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, one of Howden/Andersson, and Jimmy Vesey. The top two lines being, if not elite in league-wide comparison, at least one of the best top-sixes in the Metropolitan Division, really pushes the envelope because of, in my opinion, the third line. We saw in 2014 the effect that Rick Nash and Martin St Louis had on the Rangers as their top scoring threats, because not only were they themselves dominating presences, but it enabled Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot to wreak havoc on opponents who didn’t have a decent third pair, and even ones who did. Having depth is one of the keys to winning lots of games, and Panarin would really, I mean really, put the Rangers in a spot to succeed.

All of this applies to Jeff Skinner as well, given that he also plays left wing, so I won’t bore you with repetition, but I will note that he’s a “shoot first” kind of guy, which could still benefit the Rangers substantially, particularly on the PP. Other guys of note who might have a positive effect on the left side given their experience would be Matt Duchene, Gustav Nyquist, or Matt Moulson. Let’s shoot for the stars though.

Speaking of, a potentially top-three ever defenseman is hitting UFA next season, and concerns aside about how he’ll age, he’d be the best defenseman on the Rangers since Brian Leetch. Erik Karlsson is the man of the hour come July 1 unless he signs before then, and although we’re not going to be testing the merits of signing him today, it’s fair to say that he’d be like Panarin in the way he’d change the Rangers lineup. How exactly might that look though?

Right now, on the right side of the bac kend we’ve got Neal Pionk, Tony DeAngelo, and Kevin Shattekirk, in some ostensible order. Opposite those three, corresponding with their partners there’s Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, and Fredrik Claesson. This is bad. However, adding Karlsson to the mix would be good. Proposed defense pairs would then be as follows: Karlsson/Skjei one of Pionk/DeAngelo/Staal on their off side with the odd man out in the press box (don’t ask me how, I’d write a book) and then Claesson/Shattenkirk ideally, given how their play has been relatively stable. The big thing with Karlsson coming to New York however would be ice time. Play around with who his best partner is, trade for someone specific if you want, but one way or another you’re playing him for 25-30 minutes a night. That’s going to cause some problems for opponents, especially if we somehow land him in addition to either Panarin or Skinner.

Talking about these highly-touted-and-rightfully-so UFAs is all fine and good, but we still haven’t talked about our ideal lineup with one, two, or all three of these contracts added to the Rangers payroll. I’m going to rundown each scenario with my perfect lineup, the one I would hope could make us contenders or at least fun as hell, and then leave you all to it for hashing out the details of how I’m wrong. Additionally, I’m going to throw in some wildly optimistic prospect projections, because even though I know K’Andre Miller won’t be making it to The Show anytime soon a guy can dream, alright? This is going to leave a lot of “did that guy get traded?” “where’s so-and-so” in your minds, and I’m going to need you all to tackle the cognitive dissonance involved there because as of right now I’m 1300 words deep in this piece.

Editor’s note: This piece has been edited to omit the guest author’s line projections.