Rangers Flush With Cap Room After Huge Deal

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said he expected changes, and now here they come.

Eight days after the team announced it would buy out blue-blood defenseman Dan Girardi, another alternate captain and core-group stalwart is gone.

Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton, heading into the NHL Entry Draft in Chicago, dealt Derek Stepan, along with valuable backup goalie Antti Raanta, to Arizona for a young and promising defenseman and the seventh overall pick in the draft.

[Press Release: Rangers Acquire DeAngelo & 7th Overall Pick From Coyotes]

In adding Anthony DeAngelo, just 21, Gorton made the first move in a needed upgrade on defense. DeAngelo checks a lot of boxes being right-handed – the Rangers had only two of those in their regular top seven, Girardi and Kevin Klein, who is expected to retire – and that he can play the point on the power play. A terrific skater, DeAngelo, a Sewell, NJ native, was a first-round pick (19th overall) by Tampa Bay in 2014.

The draft pick gave the Rangers two picks in the first round, after having none for the previous four drafts – since picking Brady Skjei in the first round in 2012.

Most importantly, the trade creates a ton of cap space as Stepan, still just 27, was to carry a cap hit of $6.5 million per year for the next four years, not to mention a no-trade clause that hadn’t yet kicked in.

With the Girardi buyout, and the anticipated retirement of Klein, plus the cap increase to $75 million for next season, the Rangers should have about $23 million in cap space, but just 16 roster players.

[Carpiniello: ‘Warrior’ Girardi Left It All On The Ice For Rangers]

They need to re-sign restricted free agents Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast, who is out until November after hip surgery. Gorton will surely make every attempt to re-sign unrestricted free agent Brendan Smith and will need to find a capable backup goalie. The overcrowded goalie market should make that a fairly simple task.

But the Rangers, minus Stepan and Oscar Lindberg, who was lost to Vegas in the Expansion Draft Wednesday, will need to plug holes at center. Zibanejad has been mostly a No. 2 center and Kevin Hayes is still developing at this juncture in his career. Getting a legit first-line center is a much bigger ask. And it’s unlikely that Vigneault sees J.T. Miller as a center due to his defensive deficiencies, even though that was his natural position.

Stepan had a so-so season in 2015-16 and followed that up with another in 2016-17, which ended with a miserable playoff that had him muttering to himself and frustrated. His lack of speed was exaggerated by the overall pace with the Rangers played last season. But make no mistake, this was more about cap space and a team willing to take on his contract than it was about Stepan’s ability.

Stepan’s career began with a hat-trick in his first NHL game and was highlighted by the game-winning Game 7 goal against Washington in 2015. The Rangers made the playoffs in all seven of his seasons, including three Eastern finals, a Stanley Cup Final, and a Presidents’ Trophy.

“I want to thank the New York Rangers organization and the fans for my seven years in New York,” Stepan said on Twitter. “It was an unforgettable ride and something I will cherish forever. I want to thank all of my teammates over the years for the great memories we made and will share for a lifetime.”

Stepan immediately becomes the Coyotes’ No. 1 center and Raanta their No. 1 goalie after the pre-expansion draft trade of Mike Smith. Stepan will probably get a letter too, with the Coyotes’ bidding farewell to long-time captain Shane Doan. They also need a new coach after parting ways with Dave Tippett Thursday.

Arizona GM John Chayka said he’d been “bugging” Gorton for more than a year trying to get Stepan.

[More From According to Carp]

Gorton, barring further moves, will have money to spend on free agents come July 1, when big names like ex-Capitals Kevin Shattenkirk, a righty defenseman who excels on the power play, will be available, albeit expensive.

Gorton joked to reporters in Chicago that since he had all this new cap space, his phone has been ringing more often.

But Gorton had been giving that phone a workout for months, and he might need a new battery to get through the next few weeks.