Thoughts on Thursday: Free Agency, Defensive Deployments, and Waiting For the Other Shoe to Drop

1. The spending spree that comes at the onset of the NHL’s free agency period has come and gone, and the New York Rangers came away as one of the biggest winners from the free agent frenzy. Jeff Gorton brought Ondrej Pavelec, David Desharnais, and Kevin Shattenkirk aboard at reasonable prices, which is a rarity for big ticket unrestricted free agents. After making some questionable decisions leading up to the draft and free agency, Gorton was able to fix one of his squad’s glaring holes by bringing Shattenkirk home, and signed Pavelec and Desharnais to plug holes in the team’s depth.

Unlike in year’s past, general managers around the league weren’t particularly eager to throw around millions of dollars. The most expensive contract handed out was Alexander Radulov’s five year, $31.25 million pact with the Dallas Stars, which would have ranked as the sixth most lucrative contract a year ago. In addition to a relatively low dollar amount, the five year term for Radulov (as well as Montreal’s newest acquisition, defenseman Karl Alzner) is the longest received by any unrestricted free agent. In fact, Radulov, Alzner, Shattenkirk, and Nashville Predators’ center Nick Bonino are the only players to sign deals longer than three seasons. Last year’s crop of free agents was historically weak, and it still managed to produce twelve players with deals for four or more seasons, eight of which were at least five seasons long.

The most obvious reason for the lack of long term, big money contracts would be the looming specter of another lockout. The league and the players both have the option to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in September of 2020, and as things stand right now, the players are likely to invoke their power and look to renegotiate the current CBA. Some players have even negotiated their current deals with the lockout in mind, and Kevin Shattenkirk is one of those players:

2. With Shattenkirk officially on board, the Rangers seem to have their group of seven defenseman for opening night locked in. The lifelong Rangers fan is set to join Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Nick Holden, Marc Staal, and Tony DeAngelo  on New York’s blue line this season. One of the team’s prospects such as Alexei Bereglazov, Ryan Graves, Neal Pionk, or Sean Day could challenge for a spot, but the odds of any one of them cracking the Top 6 are slim to none. Each of them would be better off playing steady minutes in Hartford compared to sitting in the press box on Broadway.

The easy idea would be to pair up McDonagh and Shattenkirk, leave the pairing of Skjei and Smith together, and have DeAngelo attempt to lug Marc Staal around in a sheltered role on the bottom pair. While the thought of pairing Ryan McDonagh up with a Norris-caliber partner may seem tempting, it would come at the cost of an average at best bottom four, as well as setting up DeAngelo to fail.

Instead, Alain Vigneault could elect to spread his talent throughout the lineup and have Shattenkirk and McDonagh on separate pairings. Having the two American stars together would give the team an all-situations shut down pairing, but they’d only be on the ice for around 25 minutes per night. Playing the two of them apart from each other would allow for the team to have an elite defenseman on the ice for more than two-thirds of every game, and would ensure that one of them is always on the ice in crucial situations late in the game.

The team’s optimal pairings seem to be something along the lines of McDonagh with DeAngelo, Skjei with Shattenkirk, and Holden with Smith. The team won’t be paying Marc Staal $5.7 Million sit in the press box though, so swapping Holden with Staal in this scenario seems to be the more realistic option. From there, DeAngelo is paired up with McDonagh in order to prevent McDonagh from having to do the heavy lifting offensively.

Brendan Smith could be plugged in if DeAngelo isn’t able to handle the defensive responsibilities of the 1st Pair, but Smith’s lack of puck skill and creativity makes DeAngelo the better option to play higher up in the lineup. Skjei and Shattenkirk would serve as the 1B to McDonagh and DeAngelo’s 1A, and Staal and Smith would be tasked with the leftover minutes. Having a third pairing without a true puck mover is less than ideal, but the Rangers locked themselves into that situation after deciding to extend Smith’s contract.

3. As it currently stands, Jeff Gorton has a surplus of capable NHL defenseman, something the Rangers organization hasn’t had in what seems like years. In stark comparison to last season, the team is currently short on forwards. There is still time for the team to make a move to shore up their forward corps, but as of this moment their opening night lineup will look something like this, line combos notwithstanding:

Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich

Rick Nash-Kevin Hayes-Mats Zuccarello

J.T. Miller-David Desharnais-Michael Grabner

Jimmy Vesey-Cristoval Nieves-Nicklas Jensen

Jesper Fast and his new $5.55 million contract will be out for opening night as he continues to recover from offseason surgery, so once he returns he’ll be slated to take Jensen’s spot on the 4th Line. Even with that spot in the lineup taken care off, there’s plenty of room for improvements down the middle. Zibanejad, Hayes, and Desharnais are all playing one line above where they can excel. Acquiring a true first line center will be difficult to accomplish at this point on the offseason, so it appears that Zibanejad and Hayes will be tasked top six duties throughout the upcoming season.

The rumors surrounding Matt Duchene and Alex Galchenyuk have died down since the draft so they seem to be off of Jeff Gorton’s radar. Tyler Bozak is a name that’s popped up in certain circles but there doesn’t seem to be a fit there unless Toronto sells low on him. The team could opt to give J.T. Miller another chance at center, but that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. If Gorton went out and signed a player like Jaromir Jagr or P-A Parenteau then perhaps moving Miller to the middle would be sensible, but not as the team currently stands.

Regardless of their current situation, the Rangers are bound to make some sort of move before coming to camp in September. With at least eight defenseman who belong in the NHL, and less than twelve proven NHL forwards currently penciled in for October 5th against the Colorado Avalanche, something has to give. It’ll be up to Jeff Gorton to decide what that something is.