The New York Rangers’ 2015-16 season is over, having ended much sooner and in much more ugly fashion than they and their fans could have imagined before the year began. Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is now 34, and the Rangers have wasted another year of his prime. Despite what I wrote a year ago, their window for contending could be closing very quickly if they do not make the right roster decisions.
The Rangers have a busy offseason ahead, but amid all the transactions and decisions they will surely make, there are some that are particularly imperative for both the short-term and long-term success of the franchise going forward.
1. Re-sign Keith Yandle
Defenseman Keith Yandle might not be elite in his own end, but he is just that when it comes to bringing offense from the blueline. While somewhat prone to mistakes on the defensive side, he is often unfairly criticized in that regard, and his offensive prowess and possession-driving game more than make up for any of those shortcomings.
Yandle had 47 points for the Rangers in the regular season, including 42 assists, which led the entire team; that includes all forwards. His 42 assists were the most by any Rangers defenseman since some guy named, uh, Brian Leetch. What’s more impressive is that he compiled those numbers while being largely underutilized for most of the season.
Yandle is a unique talent, and in an evolving game where speed, skill, and creativity have never been more important, having a defenseman who can bring all of those qualities from the backend is critical. As such, teams will be lining up to pay him when he officially hits unrestricted free agency on July 1 (unless the Rangers re-sign him before then).
Sure, the Rangers have an excellent two-way defenseman in Ryan McDonagh, as well as the up-and-coming Brady Skjei, whose game projects to be very similar to McDonagh’s. But neither of those players, nor any other defenseman on New York’s roster, can provide offense from that position like Yandle.
Unlike many trades the Rangers have made for established or veteran NHL players in past years at the expense of strong prospects and draft picks, Yandle has actually held up his end of the bargain fully. Now the Rangers need to continue to maximize his value, and they won’t do that if they let him walk away as a free agent.
While retaining Yandle will be difficult given the Rangers’ precarious salary cap situation, he has indicated that he very much likes to play for the Blueshirts. He will likely command an annual salary of at least $6 million per year, but perhaps he would be willing to leave money on the table from other teams to stay with the Rangers (disclaimer: this is merely speculation).
Yandle is 29, so a long-term contract would not exactly fit into the Rangers’ need to get younger, but for a player with such a unique skill set, bringing him back into the fold is a must. Furthermore, while it’s impossible to know exactly when and how quickly a player’s game will begin to decline, Yandle’s game of smooth skating and elite vision seems to lend itself more to longevity than that of a hard-nosed, more gritty player.
The Rangers should ultimately see if Yandle is open to a four or five-year contract (perhaps six years if needed) worth a maximum of $6.5 million per year. If Yandle’s demands far exceed those terms, then the club might not have a choice except to move on, but this type of contract has a strong chance of being amenable to both sides.
However, even with Dan Boyle’s $4.5 million annual salary coming off the books, the Rangers will be in a crunch for cap space. That is one reason why they need to…
2. Cut ties with Dan Girardi
I recently wrote, and have been at least hinting at it all season, that the Rangers need to sever ties with defensive mainstay Dan Girardi. His gradual decline over the past couple of years culminated in an absolute nose-dive this season.
Despite his great career with the Rangers, the organization needs to move on from him, as his sub-par defensive game drags down his team’s ability to establish and maintain puck possession. He is no longer effective at shutting down the opposition, let alone its top players, like he used to be.
Girardi, 31, has essentially become a liability, and an expensive one at that, carrying a cap hit of $5.5 million annually for the next four years. The Rangers need to shed that salary to make room for more effective players, such as Yandle.
The problem is that given all of Girardi’s shortcomings, it’s unlikely that there would be much interest in him on the trade market. Girardi’s contract also includes a no-movement clause, so he can veto a trade to another team if he wants to.
That said, the Rangers need to adhere to due diligence and at least try to see if a trade is possible. If not, then they might have to exercise the option to buy out Girardi’s contract. Girardi would not be able to veto this type of move, but the problem is that the Rangers would be penalized with smaller cap hits for the next eight seasons ($1.75 million next season, $2.75 million the following season, $3.75 million for each of the two seasons after that, and $1.25 million for each of the four seasons after that).
That’s a fair amount of dead cap space for a lot of years, and for a team that is starting to pay the price for years of mortgaging its future in order to fulfill a “win now” mandate, this would not exactly be a marked improvement. But if it means they can save enough cap space to keep key players in the fold both now and long-term, and they can improve their defense by subtracting Girardi, then it just might be what they have to do.
Of course, there is another defenseman the Rangers need to try to move…
3. Cut ties with Marc Staal
Marc Staal, 29, is the other New York blueliner who had a rough 2015-16 season, as his overall effectiveness has also declined rapidly. At times late this season though, Staal showed signs of the shutdown defender from yesteryear, so unlike Girardi, he might still have some value on the trade market, even with his $5.7 million cap hit for each of the next five seasons.
Staal does have a no-movement clause like Girardi, but the Rangers should have more flexibility in finding a deal that works for both sides, given that multiple teams might still view him as a potentially valuable piece and good fit.
At this point, the Rangers need to do everything they can to trade Staal. If successful, this will free up more salary cap space (provided that the pieces being received do not cancel out those savings), and allow New York to build an excellent left side of defense featuring McDonagh, Yandle, and Skjei.
4. Re-sign J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and Dylan McIlrath
Severing ties with Girardi and Staal would help ensure that the Rangers will not only be able to re-sign Yandle, but also bring back four key young players, all of whom are restricted free agents and in line for contract raises: J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and Dylan McIlrath.
The 23-year-old Miller had a breakout campaign for New York, tallying 22 goals and 21 assists for 43 points. As the season progressed, he eventually established himself firmly as an integral member of the team’s top-six forward group. Bringing him back is paramount, and the Rangers would be wise to lock him up long-term to a contract that could be expensive in the short run, but a bargain down the road once Miller fully reaches his potential.
Kreider, who was expected to elevate his game to a new level this season, got off to a horrendously slow start before catching fire down the stretch and finishing with numbers very similar to Miller (21 goals, 22 assists). His inconsistency led to some speculation that the Rangers would consider trading him, but at still just 24 years of age, doing so would be foolish. He is a player that the Rangers need to continue to build around and allow to develop, so there should be no hesitation to re-sign him to a long-term deal.
Hayes’ 2015-16 season was a struggle, though his playmaking ability was not always properly leveraged by head coach Alain Vigneault. Nevertheless, Hayes is only 23 years old, and his combination of size (6’5″, 227 pounds), slick hands, and strong vision create a high ceiling of potential for the center/winger. Thankfully, while briefing the media at the Rangers’ breakup day, Vigneault expressed Hayes’ importance to the club going forward, so it appears that the plan is to bring him back.
AV was asked whether Kevin Hayes is definitely part of the team’s future: “Yes, without a doubt.”
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) April 26, 2016
Then there is McIlrath, a 24-year-old defenseman who looked very solid in limited action with the Rangers this season, as Vigneault dressed him in only 34 regular season games and one playoff game. Selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, McIlrath has taken awhile to develop, and unfairly has to carry the burden of being the guy the Rangers selected when Vladimir Tarasenko was still on the board.
Despite all of that though, McIlrath made huge strides in his game to crack the club’s roster for this past season, and performed admirably when he got the opportunity. With the right side of their defense lacking in depth (without Girardi and Boyle, only McIlrath and Kevin Klein would remain), bringing back McIlrath and giving him a regular spot in the lineup would be the smart move for the Rangers to make. They could then look to add another cap-friendly defenseman either from within or via free agency to complete the right side.
5. Cut ties with Tanner Glass
I will not devote too much time to the
fact idea that the Rangers need to cut ties with physical fourth-liner and Vigneault-favorite Tanner Glass. While his play improved this season compared to his disastrous first year on Broadway, his style of play and overall efficacy really do not have a place in the modern NHL. Nor does his $1.45 million cap hit in the Rangers’ tenuous salary structure.
Glass’s fourth-line role could be filled more effectively with a younger player for less money. Vigneault and the Rangers need to finally let this two-year saga come to an end. It seemed back in the beginning of the season that they had, when Glass was waived. However, he went down to AHL Hartford when no one claimed him, and was soon called back up by the Rangers and stayed with them through the rest of the year.
Waiving Glass again and dealing with the minor cap infraction ($500,ooo) as a result is a trade-off where the benefits far exceed the costs. Trading him would be even better, but since there likely would be little to no interest in him, sending him down to the minors for the final year of his contract is the action the organization should take in that case.
6. Bring Pavel Buchnevich Over from Russia and Give Him a Roster Spot
While promising young scoring winger Anthony Duclair might be gone as a result of last year’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes for Yandle, the Rangers have another offensively-gifted player in the system: 21-year-old Russian forward Pavel Buchnevich.
Buchnevich, a high-value third-round pick by the Rangers in 2013, played in the KHL the past few seasons, putting up respectable numbers against many players who were older and more developed than he was. His KHL contract with SKA St. Petersburg has expired, so he is expected to come to North America and compete for a roster spot with the Rangers.
The Rangers should give Buchnevich every opportunity to not only be on the opening night roster, but to have a key role, perhaps as a top-six forward. His youth, speed, shot, and offensive instincts are all traits that would help the Rangers immensely next season and beyond.
7. Start Paying Attention to Advanced Stats
Now, I will admit that since I am not a member of the Rangers’ organization, I do not know the extent to which they examine and leverage certain advanced statistics, especially possession metrics like Corsi. But when a team is 26th in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage, and so obviously hemorrhages high-danger scoring chances against (the Rangers were tied in allowing the sixth-most high-danger scoring chances for opponents per 60 minutes), it seems to me that not enough value is placed on these types of measures.
The Rangers need to focus some attention this offseason on either creating an analytics department or augmenting whatever they currently have in this category, because their weak puck possession very much kept them from being a better team this past season. In an age where so many tools are available to evaluate team and individual performance, and identify areas for improvement, it is foolish for an organization to not take advantage of everything at its disposal.
There is no need to replace traditional measures and old-fashioned scouting with tracking and usage of advanced statistics; these just represent components of another tool that can help a team in conjunction with more traditional methods. It’s time for the Rangers to get on board.