In 2019, New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton watched his team win the second-overall selection in the NHL Draft Lottery. On his person was the badge of the late Steven McDonald, a man whose heroism is remembered annually by an award in his namesake.
During the second phase of the 2020 Draft Lottery, on looked Gorton via Zoom, again clutching onto the badge which he casually refers to as a ‘good-luck charm’. A 12.5 percent longshot turned into reality as the Rangers won the right to select first overall, a choice that seems to clearly be Canadian standout, Alexis Lafreniere.
Adding the 6-foot-1 winger to an offensive core that already features the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Kappo Kaako signifies a symbolic end to their brief rebuild. After tearing through the QMJHL, tallying 35 goals and 77 assists, Lafreniere won the gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships earlier this year.
He registered four goals and six assists en route to being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Now he will likely take his talents to Broadway, where despite the optimism surrounding this young core, several offseason decisions still remain.
Will the Rangers Let Strome and Fast Walk?
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the NHL to mandate a flat salary cap over the next several seasons, forcing teams to become cautious with their financial situations. The Rangers have a glut of free agents as well as rostered players such as Adam Fox, Zibanejad, and Kakko who will need to be re-signed in the near future, a factor which could lead to limited spending this offseason.
Both Ryan Strome (RFA) and Jesper Fast (UFA) are without contracts for the next season, and Gorton has to decide whether to keep one, both, or neither. With the Blueshirts likely adding another winger in Lafreniere, the 28-year-old Fast becomes expendable. (from ‘Rangers could face contract issue with popular and effective Jesper Fast,’ New York Post, 07/30/2020)
Fast, who has been the best defensive forward for New York during his tenure will see his spot succumb to the youthful talent the Rangers possess, falling behind the likes of Panarin, Kreider, Buchnevich, Kakko, Gauthier, Kravtsov, and now Lafreniere. That leaves Strome as the primary concern for Gorton, especially since he put up 59 points in 2019-20.
Strome remains New York’s best-rostered option at center for their second line and barring any offseason moves, the Rangers may need to keep him to solidify the middle. Despite the glaringly obvious need to keep him, the price tag that the 27-year-old may command could be too high of an ask for the Rangers to agree to.
Only five other centers between the ages of 25 and 30 scored between 55 and 65 points this past season, those players being John Tavares, Ryan O’Reilly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn. Couturier possesses the cheapest contract at just $4.33 million, meaning Strome is due for a significant bump from his current pay-grade of $3.1 million.
For the Rangers to hold onto Strome, the center must either take a team-friendly and shorter-term deal, or the Blueshirts must maneuver other parts of their roster to fit his contract.
Other Options the Rangers can Consider
It is no secret the Rangers are looking to remove themselves from the Henrik Lundqvist era and move towards the dynamic tandem of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. Lundqvist is owed $8.5 million in 2020-21, and his retirement could relieve much of the Rangers’ financial burden.
According to Newsday’s Colin Stephenson, Jeff Gorton plans to start the upcoming campaign with two goaltenders, inferring that “The King” may be the odd man out.
Depending on how that ongoing situation plays out, we could be talking about a much different salary cap outlook for the Rangers. However, there is another outlet for New York to eliminate some salary.
That outlet comes in the form of a buyout, either of Marc Staal or Brendan Smith, a familiar path for the Rangers as they bought out Kevin Shattenkirk just last season. A Smith buyout saves the Rangers $1.56 million in 2020-21, while a Staal buyout saves $2.13 million.
A buyout seems very likely, especially when you consider Tony DeAngelo is an RFA as well after having a breakout campaign this year. New York will have to maneuver their way around the cap, a dilemma that remains despite their lottery win.
The New York Rangers will select first overall on Oct. 9 for the first time since 1965. It has been a long time since the Blueshirts held the first selection, and the addition of Lafreniere will almost certainly guarantee a new look for New York when the puck drops on the 2020-21 season.