BLUESHIRTSVILLE, NY – The New York Rangers acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets for Neal Pionk and a first round pick. While Trouba is not a superstar, he’s a top pair defenseman who excels on both ends of the ice. The trade is a big win for the Rangers, but he is a restricted free agent (RFA) who will command a large pay raise. With several other RFAs on the team in line for a raise, acquiring Trouba limits what the Rangers can do in the rest of the off-season and will make it more difficult to sign superstar winger Artemi Panarin or another top free agent.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Rangers are currently about $17.5 million under the cap. Even if they could somehow sign Trouba and Panarin for less than that, it wouldn’t leave them any wiggle room for other needs. The last thing the Rangers want to do is slam right back up against the cap as soon as they get a little breathing room.
Erik Karlsson, the top free agent defenseman on the market, re-signed with San Jose for eight years and $92 million, a whopping $11.5 per year. Trouba played last season with a base salary of $5.5 million. His raise figures to land somewhere between those two numbers. Let’s be conservative and say he signs for a per year figure of $7.0 million. That would leave the Rangers with right around $10.5 million of cap space, which is in the neighborhood of what Panarin is expected to get on an annual basis. The Rangers could add a lesser free agent, but getting an impact player won’t come cheap. Jeff Skinner g0t $9 million per year from Buffalo and any impact player they sign will likely put them up against the cap.
The Other RFAs
But that leaves nothing for the key other RFAs Brendan Lemieux, Pavel Buchnevich, and Tony Deangelo, all deserving of a pay raise. All three are young and seem to fit into the team’s plan for the future, at least for now. While none will command a raise as big as Trouba’s, all will get a nice bump. They would have to lop off some payroll from somewhere else to make room for a big UFA after inking these three.
Dead Wood on the Blueline
Three contracts the Rangers would love to jettison belong to Kevin Shattenkirk (two more years at $6.65 million), Kevin Smith, (two more years at $4.35 million), and Marc Staal (two more years at $5.7 million). Shattenkirk has underachieved from the start (thanks for the hometown discount). Staal is still useful but overpaid. Smith found a role last season as a bottom pair D-man/fill in winger, but that money could be much better spent elsewhere. And the team needs to find room for young D-men like Adam Fox, Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov, and Ryan Lindgren, who will be pushing for minutes at the NHL level.
The Henrik Problem
There is one other big contract that has become an anchor to the rebuilding ship. It hurts me to say this, but the Rangers would benefit if they were able to trade franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist to a contender. Trading him would be difficult, because it would have to find a contending team in need of a goaltender with the cap room to take on his contract. Good luck with that. But maybe they would have better luck ahead of the trade deadline. While I would love to see the King retire as a Ranger, trading him would provide two benefits.
First, it clears the path to the NHL for young phenom and potential heir Igor Shesterkin. With Lundqvist signed for two more years at $8.5 per, the Rangers will likely have to trade Alexandar Georgiev, who showed flashes of greatness in the second half of last year. Shesterkin was only signed to a two-year deal, so they will want to get a look at the kid on Broadway before too long. He also has a clause that allows him to return to the KHL if he is sent to Hartford. While he will probably be open to a brief stay in Hartford to acclimate himself to the North American game, he won’t be happy there for long. Igor’s stats in the KHL are eye popping and expectations are high. If Hank sticks around and isn’t open to waiving his no movement clause, Georgiev will likely be the odd man out.
Secondly, shedding Lundqvist’s contract would allow them to go after Panarin or other impact free agents.
They could created a little cap room by trading away some salary. The Rangers are being very active by all accounts, and the most common names being mentioned are Chris Kreider, Jimmy Vesey and Vlad Namestnikov. All three are UFAs after next season and the Rangers want to avoid a scenario where they are forced to sell off pending UFAs at the deadline for the third year in a row. As most of the Rangers’ bad contracts don’t come off the books until the following season (2021-22), it’s hard to see how they could commit big money to Kreider in a long term deal.
One way to create some space would be to buy out Shattenkirk, Staal, or Smith. While this would free up some money in the short term, it adds years of dead money to the books. The Rangers will be still taking a cap hit for buying out Dan Girardi through the 2022-23 season. I think Smith is the most likely to be bought out as it would save about $3.4 million this year and only add $1.1 of dead money for an additional two seasons. A Shattenkirk buyout is less likely because even though it would save them over $5 million this year, there would be a dead cap hit in 2020-21 of over $6 million. Buying him out next season makes more financial sense. Staal is probably the least likely to be bought out, which seemed unlikely a year ago.
If they don’t buy out anyone, big money will be freed up after the 2020-21 season with Lundqvist, Staal, Shattenkirk, and Smith all coming off the books. By then some of their youngsters will have developed, hopefully, and they will have settled on the heir to Lundqvist. In the meantime, a little restraint is needed. The last thing they want is to lock themselves into new bad contracts. If the young nucleus develops, they will have the cap flexibility to fill in any holes and the stars might align for them to become a powerhouse.
With Kaapo Kakko now in the fold, things are looking up on Broadway.
Here’s a way-too-early projection for their starting lineup in 2019-20:
There’s not a lot of depth behind the starters. I guess the reserves at this point would be Vesey, Boo Nieves, Shattenkirk, Smith, and some youngsters. As the Stanley Cup Finals made crystal clear, you need a lot of good players to lift the trophy, not just a good line or two. The Rangers have more work to do and the youngsters need some time to mature, but the season should be fun to watch.
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