Having passed all the significant and obvious dates for potential change – the Expansion Draft, the Entry Draft, the first days of free agency — Jeff Gorton’s alterations on the Rangers’ roster are ongoing.
Take a look at the team as it stands right now, and you see significant changes. You also see potential upgrades in spots, and holes in others.
The simple view:
The Rangers’ general manager has also handled some of his in-house chores – re-signing defenseman Brendan Smith and winger Jesper Fast (who signed a three-year deal with a $1.85 million cap hit on Wednesday), with only one more significant contract to be done.
That would be Mika Zibanejad, who at the moment is the Rangers’ No. 1 center, and who filed for arbitration Wednesday (Fast also did, shortly before agreeing to terms). If history is a guide, Zibanejad’s negotiations will go down to the wire and get done – likely in the neighborhood of an annual cap hit of $4.5 million, depending on how many years of unrestricted free agency the Rangers buy – before his arbitration hearing.
Most thought the Rangers’ defense would require a major overhaul, but it will at the very least have a different look. The trade of Stepan’s contract to Arizona and the loss of Lindberg in the Expansion Draft left two big holes at center, not to mention all the situations in which Stepan played. And of course, Gorton needed to replace Raanta as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup.
Some of those boxes have been checked. Some others haven’t.
The Rangers made a run at a short-term answer in Joe Thornton, 38, who wound up re-signing with San Jose for one year.
Desharnais, a small (5-foot-7), good-skating 30-year-old officially signed a one-year deal for $1 million on Wednesday. What to expect from him? He’s certainly not replacing Stepan’s minutes or responsibilities or offense. If he winds up in Lindberg’s spot as a fourth-line center and can stay healthy, that’s a good replacement, if not a short-term upgrade.
But can the Rangers go into the season with Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes as their top two centers? And if they can, or do, who’s centering the third line? Gorton mentioned J.T. Miller, whose natural position is center, as a possibility, though he added that he’s continuing to look for centers via free agency or trades. Miller is seen as a winger by coach Alain Vigneault, and his play without the puck, plus his decisions with it, may suggest he’s better off not having a centerman’s responsibilities.
It doesn’t appear the Rangers have the pieces to get a Matt Duchene in a trade, and maybe Gorton will have to set his sights on a third-line center. Lias Andersson, the 18-year-old selected with the seventh overall draft pick acquired in the Stepan trade, has a shot to make the team in camp but isn’t a lock by any means.
On Wednesday, Montreal re-signed Alex Galchenyuk, who was rumored to be on the move … but Galchenyuk (three years, $4.9 million per) did not get any no-trade protection according to reports.
Most likely the Rangers’ depth on the wing will have to be used if Gorton wants to get a top-6 center in a trade. With Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Miller, Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich, Michael Grabner, Fast (who will miss the first month of the season after hip surgery) and Matt Puempel, the Rangers can deal from strength. But can they find a fit?
Is Shattenkirk the end of the upgrade on defense, or is more coming?
The addition of Shattenkirk drastically changes the look of the Rangers defense because he’s dramatically different than Girardi. The assumption is that Shattenkirk, a slick, puck-moving right-hander who can skate it out or pass it, and who will run the first power-play unit from the point, will partner in Girardi’s spot with Ryan McDonagh.
Kevin Shattenkirk speaks to reporters on a conference call after signing with the Blueshirts as a free agent.
That leaves sophomore Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith as the likely second pair – Skjei with some of the same assets as Shattenkirk, though from the left side, and the reliable Smith remaining on the right.
Which brings us to Marc Staal – a top-4 left defenseman his entire career – playing fewer minutes on a third pair. There’s been noise about buying out Staal during the second buyout period, but that seems unlikely with the long-term dead cap space added to that which already exists after Girardi’s buyout. If Staal is to be bought out, next summer makes much more sense. Staal holds a no-move clause, so it would be difficult to include him in a deal to upgrade another position, but not impossible.
Staal is probably going to be on the left side of the defense on opening night. Will he play with Nick Holden? With DeAngelo, the 21-year-old righty who also has offensive instincts? Or with a rookie, such as Alexei Bereglazov or Neal Pionk, both of whom were signed as free agents in the springtime? Will any of those young players stick around as an extra (probably not) or will that go to holdover Steven Kampfer? And, as expected, Klein has retired.
Pavelec is a short-term (one year, $1.3 million) fix as a replacement for Raanta. The Rangers didn’t want to deal Raanta, but his inclusion in the Stepan deal was insisted upon by Arizona in order to get Stepan’s contract off the books and to get the No. 7 overall pick used on Andersson. Raanta wanted a chance to be a No. 1 goalie and he’ll get that with the Coyotes.
Pavelec struggled terribly last season, playing only eight games with Winnipeg and spending most of the season in the minors, but the Rangers hope that goalie guru Benoit Allaire can work his magic and get Pavelec to a level at which the Rangers are accustomed to having their backup goalie play. They’ve been spoiled with Martin Biron followed by Cam Talbot followed by Raanta. It’s not an insignificant role.
Gorton has $5.5 million in cap space (per CapFriendly.com) after the Desharnais and Fast signings, a number that will go to $8.4 million once Klein’s contract is off the books.
He will need more than half of that to sign Zibanejad, so getting a center who can play on the first two lines will require salary going the other way in a trade, and/or some maneuvering.
Teams can exceed the salary cap by 10 percent ($7.5 million) in the offseason, but the Rangers aren’t likely to go that route.
Gorton’s work is not yet done. How much more he can do will depend on his creativity.