Chris Kreider And J.T. Miller Will Test Jeff Gorton's Long-Term Outlook This Summer
Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller are slotted for raises this summer. Here's what Gorton is working with.
Most every conversation/debate about Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Tanner Glass circles around how their respective contracts impact the Rangers both in the short and long term. We've taken a pretty short-term outlook on this situation recently, trying to pinpoint how these deals will impact the Rangers one way or another.
There's a deeper monster lurking in this ocean, though. Something that's going to have to be dealt with that will also have long-term implications on the team.
That something is how Jeff Gorton is going to be dealing with the Rangers RFAs -- specifically Chris Krieder and J.T. Miller.
Here's something to keep in mind: It's more than likely that Gotron is going to keep the Glen Sather tradition of forcing RFAs coming off their respective ELCs to taking a bridge deal. It's a precedent that's been set in stone for a long time, allowing the organization to utilize their leverage on a player while the player has little to none of their own.
Here's why Kreider and Miller are the exception:
1) Both players are coming off their bridge deals this year. Miller signed his qualifying offer last year and Kreider is finished with his two-year bridge deal this summer. Per the precedent the Rangers have set, both players are in line for bigger, long-term raises this year. (It's worth noting Miller's deal is somewhat unique, since it's rare for players to accept their qualifying offer outright, but he did it because ...)
2) Both players are arbitration eligible this summer if the two sides can't come to an agreement. Arbitration is the leverage that RFAs have when dealing with contract negotiations (if they're eligible), and the threat of a hearing usually adds drama or a speedier negotiation than if a player weren't eligible.
For those who don't know: Arbitration is a process in which a team and player meet in court and an independent judge rules on the player's salary. The player goes into the hearing asking for X and argues for why he deserves it while the team asks for Y and why the player doesn't deserve what he wants. Sometimes it leads to bad blood, and sometimes it causes unneeded tension since teams are forced to point out the player's flaws in front of them. Player elected arbitration -- which both players have -- creates a one-year salary award that the team can walk away from (which would make the player an automatic UFA). Team-elected arbitration allows the team to ask for a one- or two-year ruling and they CAN'T walk away. Again: Both Miller and Kreider have player-elected rights.
The Rangers could try to force Miller into another bridge deal, since most bridge deals the Rangers utilize last two years. I do think Miller is a prime candidate to be locked down long term at a cheaper rate. Yes, there's a risk with going off a single full season with Miller and giving him a long term contract because of it, but I think the rewards outweigh the risks. If you could get Miller at a six-year deal with a $3.5-million cap hit wouldn't you do it now? At worst it's a long term $3.5-million mistake, but at best it serves as Ryan McDonagh's contract does right now -- a deal that makes you shake your head at how much money it's saving the Rangers.
McDonagh, for what it's worth, was the horse that bucked the trend of bridge deals. Sather didn't play around with him, and locked him down to a six-year deal right off his entry level contract. Outside of the whole "he needs to be paired with Girardi or else the sun will engulf the earth and we'll all die" clause in his deal, the contract has paid off in spades for the Rangers.
Miller proposes an opportunity to do the same thing. With the Rangers sitting in cap hell, it's tough to justify paying him more today to save tomorrow, but if they truly do have a long-term outlook to make the team younger this isn't a bad road to walk down.
Kreider is a slightly different situation.
Coming off a normal bridge deal, Kreider is in line for a true negotiation this summer. The Rangers probably expected more of him from an offensive production standpoint, but Kreider has too many tools and too much talent to give up on.
Kreider is an interesting bet because of this very reason. It's like sitting on 15 at the blackjack table. You'd kick yourself not to hit with that hand, but you'd do it knowing there's a chance you'd bust out. I don't ever think Kreider won't be a 20-goal scorer, but if he suddenly put it together, he could be that elite sniping 40-goal guy the Rangers always wanted.
Hockey Stat Miner touched on this in Part One of his series on the Rangers' options this summer:
Compounding these issues, there's the trio of restricted free agents in Kevin Hayes, Miller and Kreider: all due sizable pay increases. While the group only accounted for an aggregated total salary cap hit of $4.249 million (6% of the cap) in 2015-16, we're looking at the same three bodies reaching anywhere from $8 million (11.2%) to $11 million (15.4%) in October. And no, lowballing won't be an economical weapon of defense for Gorton this time around, as all three have the option of salary arbitration.
I've avoided discussing Hayes on this thread because he's the one guy here who is primed for that bridge deal. I can't imagine the Rangers bucking the trend for him, especially after the perceived (read: wrong) narrative that he sucked this year. Regardless, with the Rangers sitting in the seventh circle of cap hell, they're not going to take the risk on Hayes this summer. He's getting a bridge deal.
The Rangers currently have long-term deals (three years or more left) on three forwards (add another forward if you count Pavel Buchnevich and his ELC), three defenseman and a goalie. Not that it's an enormous amount of locked down players, but the Rangers would be making a real investment in this being their future.
Assuming Kreider and Miller are locked down long term this summer; Hayes, Lindberg and Fast would be next up over the next two years. That doesn't even include Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath -- who is a free agent this summer himself.
With rumors swirling Derek Stepan is on the trading block, and with the everlasting hope the Rangers remove at least one long-term contract on defense there's a little room here for the Rangers to replace some of the old with the new, but it's still going to be a pretty massive investment one way or another.
Kreider's down year helped the Rangers in this regard because it does make him a little cheaper, but you can bet him and his agent are going to point out that even in a down year he had 21 goals and 43 points in 79 games. He's a guy primed to explode and would be one of those "you should sort of be worried about an offer sheet" RFAs even though those rarely happen anymore.
Miller is similar, and might actually be more primed for a bridge deal because he's going to be cheaper than Kreider and would thus require less of a compensation.
For those who don't know: restricted free agents (RFAs) are susceptible to offer sheets, in which another team can sign a player to a contract like they would any other free agent. The catch: A team has seven days to match the contract (in which case the player must accept) or if the team elects not to match then they get draft pick compensation based on how much the annual cap hit is of the contract.
There is a longer story coming on this later, but the Rangers might not have much of an ability to keep younger players who are poached via offer sheets because of their current cap situation. Not that it's very likely -- like I said, offer sheets are very rare -- but it remains a possibility the Rangers need to be worried about.
As if this summer isn't going to be nerve-wracking enough.