Gorton Has Cap Space, But Holes to Fill in Free Agency

When you’re “rebuilding on the fly,” you must exercise caution.

And that is exactly what I expect from Rangers GM Jeff Gorton when the NHL’s Silliness Holiday, otherwise known as free agency, begins Saturday.

[Fischler: A Look Ahead to the Free Agent Frenzy]

Gorton’s now got what the Rangers have rarely had and what a lot of teams are madly maneuvering to gain – salary cap space. With the signing this week of defenseman Brendan Smith (four years at an annual cap hit of $4.35 million), Gorton’s got about $15.65 million to spend (per Capfriendly.com), and that becomes around $18.55 million if Kevin Klein does indeed retire (if he doesn’t, the Rangers may likely deal him).

But you can pretty much bet that Gorton won’t be out spending like a drunken sailor.

The Rangers have needs, and they have holes to fill, and it’s not a stretch to say that right now they are worse off than they were when the playoffs ended in the second round. They have bought out Dan Girardi, lost Oscar Lindberg to an expansion draft, traded Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta and in return got only cap space, a draft pick (Lias Andersson at No. 7 overall) and 21-year-old right-handed puck-moving defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

[Carpiniello: Rangers Flush With Cap Room After Huge Deal]

During draft weekend, Gorton used the term “rebuilding on the fly.” It can certainly be done. But you cannot lose sight of the “rebuilding” part, and Gorton won’t.

That said, sometimes you can build a bridge to the future with money, or in more recent history, cap space.

Once upon a time, the Rangers had the green light to rebuild on the fly when Wayne Gretzky retired and the team missed the playoffs two years in a row. Then-Rangers GM Neil Smith – without the restraints of a salary cap – attempted to build a bridge so that his team could, theoretically, compete while rebuilding. So he signed six free agents – Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky, Sylvain Lefebvre, Stephane Quintal, Tim Taylor and Kirk McLean.

It didn’t work out as planned.

The cap, even with the extra money Gorton has in his wallet, won’t allow for that kind of (over)spending spree.

The Rangers need a center after losing two of their four (Stepan and Lindberg), and they’d still love to upgrade their defense with a right-hander, and they need a backup goalie.

There really aren’t top-line centers out there, not centers at a reasonable age or price. Joe Thornton is available, but he turns 38 on Sunday, is coming off ACL and MCL injuries, and a salary of $6.75 million. Thornton is believed to be looking for a three-year deal, which is a non-starter for the Rangers. If his market doesn’t materialize and he’d come for a year, then maybe the Rangers are in it, and the annual hit won’t be a major factor.

His San Jose running mate Patrick Marleau, by the way, reportedly has gained some interest from the Rangers. He turns 38 in September, but unlike Thornton – who still has elite skill – Marleau can skate and could be a fit in Alain Vigneault’s system. Again, though, the Rangers don’t need wingers as much as centers, and Marleau would need to come on a short-term deal.

Speaking of wingers, I don’t anticipate a Benoit Pouliot reunion after his buyout by Edmonton, nor do I expect the Rangers to be involved with Scott Hartnell (bought out by Columbus) and, especially, not Chris Neil.

One of the better names on the market, Alexander Radulov – who did some damage for the Canadiens against the Rangers in the playoffs – is only 30. But he wants a long term deal and loads of money.

The winger market includes some interesting names – Chris Kunitz, Thomas Vanek, Marleau, Patrick Sharp, Justin Williams (who has a short-list now), Radim Vrbata among them.

But I think the Rangers are going to stick with centers – unless they suddenly decide J.T. Miller can go back to the middle after years of preferring him and his game on the wing.

I think the Rangers will be in on Pittsburgh’s third-line center Nick Bonino, 29, but there will be a bidding war on him, too, and he will want four or five years. Martin Hanzal – a better faceoff guy than Bonino – and only 30, is another likely target. Ditto Sam Gagner, just 27.

Whether the Rangers might take a one-year shot on ex-Ranger Matt Cullen, who just won two straight Cups but is 40, is questionable. I doubt that they want to bring back Brian Boyle, who wanted a bigger role from Vigneault last time he was here, and instead went to Tampa Bay, then Toronto.

The Rangers might have to go for a lesser name, stick with Mika Zibanejad (who still needs to be re-signed, but will be) and Kevin Hayes as their top two centers, and cross their fingers. Or perhaps Gorton can swing a trade, though it’s not likely he has the pieces to get a Matt Duchene or an Alex Galchenyuk.

On defense, where the Rangers need a right-hander, the big name out there is a New Rochelle native and lifelong Rangers fan, Kevin Shattenkirk. The Rangers most certainly are interested. But it’s going to probably take seven years at around $7 million per – no less than six years at $6.5 million – to be involved in what promises to be mad-house bidding, despite Shattenkirk’s defensive-zone struggles in the playoffs with Washington.

More likely, I expect the Rangers to try to sign a Michael Stone (age 27), or perhaps Cody Franson (29). There are dozens of older defensemen available, and maybe the Rangers will go in that direction if needed, but if the plan is to rebuild on the fly, younger is the way to go.

I think the Rangers had their eye on ex-Ranger Chad Johnson as a potential backup goalie, but indications are that Johnson will re-up with Buffalo. Likewise, former Islander Anders Nilsson looks headed to Vancouver, and the Devils re-signed Keith Kincaid. So the pickings are getting slim and the Rangers might have to settle for a Jonathan Bernier, a Jhonas Enroth, a Curtis McElhinney, or former Islander J.F. Berube.

They have faith that goalie guru Benoit Allaire will get the most out of whichever goalie the Rangers end up signing.

Meanwhile, it looks as if Girardi will be Tampa-bound, at a bargain price, the Rangers stuck with some dead cap space and paying two-thirds of Girardi’s previous contract. Detroit was also interested.

Indications are that Gorton is close to re-signing Jesper Fast (who will miss the first month of the season after hip surgery), and is flexible on the term for getting Zibanejad re-signed. Zibanejad is arbitration eligible, and that deal could take a while.