On Saturday’s Day 2 of the NHL draft, the cap-strapped New York Rangers were forced to make a difficult decision to shed some salary, as they dealt speedy winger and universally-liked Carl Hagelin to the Anaheim Ducks for 23-year-old winger Emerson Etem. In the deal, the Rangers also acquired the 41st overall pick in the draft and gave up the 59th and 179th overall picks.
While surprising, the decision to trade Hagelin was understandable in that the Rangers needed to give themselves more wiggle room under the salary cap to bring back several key restricted free agents– namely Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, and Jesper Fast. Hagelin is also an RFA but he ended up being the salary cap casualty. As assistant GM Jeff Gorton said, the loss of Hagelin made it a “tough day” for the Rangers.
The trade, however, could have been avoided had GM Glen Sather, Gorton, and the rest of the New York front office been more prudent in their decision-making over the past year-plus.
Shortsighted Free Agent Signings
Rewinding back to last year’s offseason, Sather and company brought in enforcer and possession black hole Tanner Glass for three years at an annual cap hit of $1.45 million. Not only does Glass barely offer the Rangers anything of tangible value and thus did not need to be acquired, but his contract is unreasonably large, both in terms of years and dollar figures. $1.45 million might not seem like a lot, but it can often make the difference between another key player — say Hagelin — signing a new contract offer or bolting for a bit more in free agency.
As a consistent third-line contributor and excellent penalty killer, Hagelin is probably looking at earning around $3.5 million next year. If his new contract also takes up some of his unrestricted free agent years, it could even be north of $4 million. Hagelin’s prior cap hit was $2.25 million per year, so not having Glass’s contract would have given the Rangers a much more realistic chance of being able to close that gap and keep him.
Then there is defenseman Dan Boyle. While the Rangers needed a power play specialist on the blue line, the now-38-year-old Boyle was clearly on the decline at the time he inked a two-year deal with New York worth $4.5 million per. Boyle had an up-and-down season with the Rangers, and while he did step up his game in the playoffs, he did not help the power play, as he tallied just eight points (three goals, five assists) with the man-advantage during the regular season. Sather’s signing of Boyle certainly was not nonsensical but given the defenseman’s age and decline, the Rangers should not have been so willing to give out a multi-year deal at such a high amount.
Girardi Over Stralman is Haunting the Rangers
The Boyle signing meant that the Rangers would not bring back Anton Stralman. Now just 28 years old, Stralman had come into his own with the Rangers and proven himself to be a reliable defenseman. His possession numbers are fantastic and when given more of a leading role with Tampa Bay, he thrived with a career-best 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists) this past regular season.
Stralman’s contract with the Lightning, while for a longer term of five years, has the exact same annual cap hit as Boyle’s ($4.5 million). However, while it might seem like the main misstep was choosing Boyle over Stralman, one has to rewind further to see that a worse decision by Sather was actually to sign Dan Girardi to a six-year contract extension worth an average of $5.5 million per year.
While Girardi is a core Ranger who has been a very solid defender for most of his career, the 31-year-old also appears to be on the decline and does not drive possession. The Rangers are locked in with Girardi for five more years and the return on that investment is dwindling. It would not be as big of a problem if the rate was lower, but Girardi’s $5.5 million cap hit hurts.
Stralman, on the other hand, makes $1 million less per year, is younger and really just hitting his prime, and is frankly the better player at this point. The Rangers would likely be a better team if they let Girardi walk and instead kept Stralman, as unpopular of a decision as that would have seemed like at the time. They also would have had more cap space this year to re-sign Hagelin.
Why Not Klein?
I wrote recently that Kevin Klein seemed to be the odd man out as the Rangers tried to get out of their salary cap crunch, since his contract (three more years at $2.9 million per) is movable and the club has more options to replace him on defense than the uniquely-skilled Hagelin at forward. Even despite his prior errors, Sather still could have looked to move Klein instead of Hagelin. We will never know what types of conversations he had with other GMs at the draft and what types of deals were available, but losing Hagelin hurts the Rangers more than losing Klein would have.
Sather did at least manage to extract some value from the Hagelin trade in acquiring Etem and the 41st overall pick, which was used to select forward Ryan Gropp from Seattle of the WHL. Etem is also an RFA but will cost the Rangers much less than Hagelin. He is a highly-skilled former first-round pick who has not yet managed to put it all together at the NHL level, but has shown flashes and is still only 23. Perhaps a change of scenery and better opportunities with the Rangers — assistant GM Jeff Gorton said the club thinks he can be a top-nine forward right away — will allow Etem to blossom into a productive offensive threat. The Rangers will, however, undoubtedly miss Hagelin, and Sather and his staff only have themselves to blame for losing him.