For the New York Rangers, this is unchartered territory.
After terminating the contract of sturdy veteran defenseman Dan Girardi via a buyout and shipping out versatile center Derek Stepan and backup netminder Antti Raanta to the desert, Jeff Gorton is bathing in cap room.
Even following the news that deadline acquisition Brendan Smith inked a four-year pact with the Blueshirts with an AAV of $4.35 million, the Rangers still have nearly $15.7 million in breathing room with the potential to increase to $18.6 million if the rumors regarding Kevin Klein’s European excursion become reality.
On the surface, this looks like a real positive situation for the Rangers. Gorton has options for the first time since he was named general manager back in 2015 and that is exciting. There is work to do and the complexion of the roster may be very different from what it is now in a few weeks.
However, if we take a closer look, the Rangers’ cap situation may not be as wide open as it seems. With so many areas of need and little to work with on the open market, fielding a Stanley Cup competitor may be more difficult than anticipated.
Let’s break down the Rangers’ cap situation step-by-step to see why the Rangers may not have endless options.
Now that Smith is officially signed, the Rangers can finally shift their focus to restricted free agents Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast.
Zibanejad is coming off a year in which he set career highs in A/60, FO%, and was on pace to record a career high 54 points if not for a broken fibula that sidelined him for 26 games. At just 24 years old, the Swedish speedster could command a deal that pays him north of $5 million over five-to-six years. Fast is also due for a solid pay raise, as he could fetch $1.85 million over two seasons.
That would leave the Rangers with about $11.25 million to work with in free agency.
The trade market is saturated with big names that could help fit the Rangers’ needs, such as Matt Duchene, Noah Hanifin, Alex Galchenyuk and Jason Demers.
However, after seeing the return on Stepan and Raanta, I don’t see Gorton getting involved in a trade. The time for Gorton to make a move was prior to the draft when they held the seventh and 21st overall picks but Gorton opted to hold onto his selections rather than dealing them. His reluctance to part with assets makes it more likely that he holds onto them through the rest of the offseason.
So, expect the Rangers to stand pat when it comes to wheeling and dealing.
Entering free agency, the Rangers will need to find a way to add a top right-handed defenseman, two centers (one of the top-six variety) and a backup goalie.
The Rangers have the space to get this done and in all likelihood, they will accomplish what they set out to do. But Gorton is very limited in terms of the talent they could add.
Kevin Shattenkirk has made sense for two years as he fits just about every need that the Rangers have. Joe Thornton is a top-six threat who would suit the Blueshirts well on a short-term deal. Patrick Marleau has potted at least 25 goals in back-to-back years despite declining point production.
But after those three options, that’s really it.
Nick Bonino is an interesting player but is likely to get overpaid in a weak market for centers. Martin Hanzal’s injury concerns make any deal for him risky. There is no defenseman even remotely comparable to Shattenkirk that’s available on the open market.
The fact of the matter is, if the Rangers are planning on becoming a better team than they were a year ago, there is only one effective route to take. They have to sign Shattenkirk. They have to sign one of Thornton or Marleau. And both of those situations are far from sure things.
Although Shattenkirk has been rumored to be interested in coming to the Big Apple for some time now, he may find that a team will give him a blank check and opt for the money rather than coming home. Thornton and Marleau will have half the League calling for their services, despite the fact that they may end up crawling back to San Jose for one last run with the Sharks.
If these three guys end up elsewhere, that is perfectly fine. Gorton stated last week that the Rangers are “rebuilding on the fly,” which means they could be planning on utilizing their young guns this season, a proposition that makes a lot of sense. But if the Blueshirts are chasing a Stanley Cup, which the signing of Smith indicates, then they are placing too many eggs in the free agency basket.