The NHL Expansion Draft probably could have worked out worse for the Rangers, who were always going to lose one of four players since the guidelines were set – Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner or Antti Raanta.
The Vegas Golden Knights chose the 25-year-old Lindberg Wednesday as they submitted their first roster as an NHL team.
You could certainly make the argument that losing Lindberg was a best-case scenario given how much responsibility Rangers coach Alain Vigneault bestows on Fast, and how much speed and pressure — not to mention 27 goals — Grabner added to their attack. You also saw how much comfort Raanta provided as a perfect backup to Henrik Lundqvist.
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All of them were replaceable, but Lindberg – as much as the Rangers liked him – was probably the easiest to replace. You can also always get a backup goalie, and the market will be flooded with those this summer, but there is no guarantee another goalie could step in the way Raanta (or Cam Talbot before him or Martin Biron before him) did. Backup goalies are a more appreciated commodity when you don’t have a reliable one.
Many teams cut deals with Vegas GM George McPhee to keep him from selecting certain players. But in the Rangers’ case, it made no sense to give up an asset to have McPhee not pick Lindberg, only to then lose either Raanta, Grabner or Fast. So they will live with the loss of Lindberg, who came into his own late in the season and in the playoffs after taking some time to completely recover from last summer’s hip surgery.
But Lindberg was a fourth-line center, and not at all likely to crack the top three lines anytime soon, especially while Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes work here … though that could change too.
Who will replace him? Perhaps Marek Hrivik, who’s gotten some looks in his few calls, or Cristobal “Boo” Nieves, who impressed the Rangers’ coaches with his size and skating, but didn’t get a full training camp due to an injury and then was hurt again during his AHL season. Maybe one of several other kids from the minors makes a jump up, such as Robin Kovacs.
Or perhaps the Rangers fill that hole from the outside, via trade or free agency.
The Rangers and GM Jeff Gorton will have some cap space with which to play with the buyout of Dan Girardi, the very likely retirement of Kevin Klein and the loss of Lindberg, plus the jump in the cap ceiling for 2017-18 from $73 million to $75 million.
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Expect Gorton to be discussing deals with McPhee – surely he already has done so – when the Expansion Draft roster freeze is lifted Thursday. The Golden Knights will have a surplus of defensemen and McPhee has promised he will be dealing some of them. He also said he already has six trades in place – most of which were assets he garnered from teams like the Islanders to not select specific players in the draft.
Marc Methot of Ottawa, for example, might not be a Golden Knight for long, especially after he raised his stock during the Senators’ run to the Eastern Conference final.
Gorton for sure is going to try to upgrade the Rangers’ defense, which doesn’t have a single returning right-handed shooter without Klein and Girardi, other than extra Steven Kampfer. Methot is a left-hander.
Gorton will make every attempt to re-sign Brendan Smith, an unrestricted free agent who shoots left-handed, but was comfortable on the right after being obtained from Detroit at the trade deadline.
In other news, the Rangers will open their season at home Oct. 5 against Colorado, and then be the visiting team for Toronto’s home-opener Oct. 7. The entire NHL schedule or 2017-18 will be revealed Thursday afternoon.