After the New York Rangers’ tumultuous 2015-16 season came crashing down in flames in a lopsided first-round playoff series loss against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, it was clear that major roster changes were needed. Head coach Alain Vigneault admitted as much during the club’s breakup day.
Despite that, the Rangers sit here in mid-July without having addressed their biggest problem: the defense.
Forward Depth Signings Solid, But Not Enough
While the Rangers had a good draft for a team that did not have a pick until the third round and made some strong forward-depth signings (Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Josh Jooris for a combined cap hit of $2.85 million is great business), the big trades that were expected have not yet come to fruition. As the dog days of summer set in, such a move becomes even less likely.
If the Rangers indeed go into the 2016-17 season without making any more changes to the back end, they will struggle to be truly competitive. Their blue line is being dragged down by the albatross contracts and ineffective play of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. A failure to cut ties with at least one of these defensemen would undermine any other quality roster moves the club makes or has made.
Back when the dust from the Rangers’ ugly 2015-16 demise was still settling, I wrote that they had to move on from at least one of Staal and Girardi, if not both. A trade would be difficult, especially for the older and inferior Girardi, who as such, is the player the Rangers most need to lose. Failing that, the Blueshirts could have opted to buy out Girardi to free up some cap space and open up a slot on defense for a better player.
While buying out Girardi would be far from the most ideal course to take from a financial standpoint, the pros probably outweigh the cons. On this subject, I wrote the following in that same piece from late April, which still holds true today:
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.
The problem is that the Rangers chose not to buy out Girardi (or Staal) in the first window in late June. Since the club has had several RFAs file for salary arbitration (Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Dylan McIlrath, the latter two of whom have since re-signed), they will have another brief period following the resolutions to all four of those players’ contracts to exercise a buyout on other players.
With this opportunity, perhaps GM Jeff Gorton will use this option on Girardi, realizing that a viable trade option does not exist after having perhaps tried to look for one. Given the lack of buzz on that subject though, it seems more likely than not that both Girardi and Staal will still be Rangers by the time opening night arrives on Oct. 13.
The reality is that the Rangers have been too quiet for a team that is in such obvious need of improvements. When you already had a sub-par defense unit and then you lose your best offensive defenseman in Keith Yandle, and follow that with no changes besides acquiring Adam Clendening and Nick Holden, that does not bode well for the upcoming season.
The Holden trade seemed to be a sign that more activity was coming from Gorton and the Rangers’ front office. That, however, has not been the case to this point. There is still time for a move to be made, but there is a prevailing feeling at this point that any opportunity the Rangers might have had to make an impactful trade has come and gone, much like their window to win a Stanley Cup.
The Rangers have made some strong moves to their bottom-six forwards, but with a defense that has no true offensive threat and is still being dragged down by Staal and Girardi, the club is staring at the disquieting reality that they might be a fringe playoff team at best in 2016-17.