The New York Rangers are currently in the midst of a rebuild that got a much-needed shot in the arm when they were able to get the second-overall pick in June’s entry draft. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the New Jersey Devils will take American-born Jack Hughes at number one. The Rangers then will grab Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko. Although it’s genuinely a 1-A, 1-B scenario for these picks, as either could be first overall, I’m going to assume Hughes is the first-overall pick.
Kakko will be able to slot into the Rangers’ opening night roster. Being able to add him to a forward corps that doesn’t have any players over the age of 27 and an average age of about 24 years old gives the Rangers a young, active group that will grow quickly.
The Rangers have some decisions to make over the summer, and pending free agent Artemi Panarin is one of the most interesting ones. Panarin has stated that he does not wish to remain a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and as I type this, they are in the second round of the playoffs, so maybe playoff success could change his mind. He has been linked to the Rangers numerous times, reports have stated that he has his eye on the Big Apple.
Rangers Rebuilding for the Future
Over a year ago, the Rangers sent letters out to their fans stating that it was time for them to turn a new leaf. They needed to get younger, and they needed to hit the reset button, as they did not feel the current group had what it would take to win a Stanley Cup. Which, kudos to the organization for that. Not many teams would have the gusto to say to their fanbase: we need a change, please hang with us through this. To their credit, they have done it the right way. They have acquired draft picks for assets that they no longer deemed part of the future.
After the Draft Lottery, their future looks a lot brighter (you can thank the Edmonton Oilers and their futility for that). Now the Rangers are forced to make a decision, do you take your good fortune and stay the course, or do you reach and try to speed this up? The first option is the safer one, but the latter is far more enticing but could prove to be problematic.
The Rangers will enter this offseason with about $17 million in cap space. Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Lemieux, Neal Pionk, and Anthony DeAngelo are set to have their ELCs expire, and will all be up for new contracts. Buchnevich and DeAngelo will see the most significant raises of the four players. They also have multiple contracts that at this point are almost immovable. Marc Staal still has two years left on his current deal, same with Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith. It’s hard to see any scenario in which the Rangers move those contracts and don’t have to attach either draft picks or young assets to gain more cap flexibility. All that without mentioning Henrik Lundqvist’s massive contract, also set to expire in the summer of 2021.
General manager Jeff Gorton could probably make a few lesser moves to free up cap space. Vladislav Namestnikov has one more year on his current deal, and from day one he did not seem to be a good fit for the Rangers. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a team takes a flyer on him for a draft pick. Ryan Strome played very well for the Rangers this season, and his stock could be elevated with him only having a year left on his deal as well.
Panarin in a Different Shade of Blue?
Going all out for Panarin is enticing. Being able to pair Mika Zibanejad, Panarin, and Kakko together sounds like a match made in heaven, but at what cost? The Rangers would have to give seven years, with at least an $8 million cap hit, and it will probably be closer to $9 million. For a rebuilding team, that could be crippling if Panarin is unable to continue at his current pace.
Even so, if they spend the money, does Panarin make them a Stanley Cup contender? No. The last thing the Rangers need to do is make a big splash and sneak into a wild-card spot, only to get bounced in the first round. The most dangerous thing for this team to be is a middle of the pack, will they, won’t they, marginal playoff team.
While it’s not the most flashy, or the most appealing, staying with the rebuild is going to be best for the Rangers’ long-term success.