This is Part 2 of 2 of a collaboration between New York Rangers writer Tom Dianora and Vegas Golden Knights writer Shayna Goldman about the Rangers’ preparations for the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft that will be conducted June 18-20. Part 1 can be found here.
The flaws of the Rangers’ defense became even more glaringly obvious after this season and postseason. While their forward depth became such a great asset this season, their defensive woes proved costly. Issues stemmed from the Rangers’ over-reliance on veterans like Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Nick Holden, and ultimately the play of these defensemen led to the Rangers’ postseason demise.
At the expansion draft, the Rangers will presumably protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. Unfortunately, the expansion draft likely will not help the Rangers rebuild their defense because of the contracts they created.
Since two defensemen (Girardi and Staal) have no-movement clauses (NMCs)—which means they must be protected from the expansion draft unless they agree to waive their clause or are bought out—the Rangers’ options are limited as they will only have one other protected spot available.
Because of their issues on defense, the Rangers may pursue a trade for a defenseman, possibly before the expansion draft, in an effort to capitalize on teams with an abundance of defensemen that they cannot protect. If they do acquire a defenseman, it is highly probable that the Rangers buy out one of Girardi or Staal before the draft (or at least get one to agree to waive his NMC).
The Rangers luckily do not have to protect one of the most valuable defensemen to their future—Brady Skjei, as all first and second-year professionals are exempt from the expansion draft.
As it stands, the Rangers have nine defensemen on their roster. Based on the current roster, these are the defensemen the Rangers will consider protecting.
McDonagh may not have a no-movement clause, but he is a lock to be protected, since the Rangers’ captain is their best defensemen.
The 27-year-old McDonagh scored 42 points (six goals, 36 assists; one point shy of his career-high of 43 in 2013-14) in 77 regular season games, which ranked sixth in points on the team and led the defense in scoring. McDonagh scored an additional seven points (two goals, five assists) in the postseason this year.
During the regular season, while paired with Girardi, McDonagh still managed lead the defense in five-on-five shots for per 60 (29.56) and expected goals for per 60 (2.7). Additionally, McDonagh’s scoring-chances-for percentage was the second-highest on defense, trailing only Adam Clendening. McDonagh’s scoring chances for per 60 of 9.35 was the third-highest on the defense and his scoring chances against per 60 of 8.28 was the second-lowest. Also impressive was McDonagh’s low goals against per 60 (2.0), which ranked second to Brendan Smith.
Along with McDonagh’s skilled play on both sides of the ice, his contract is also favorable. He has two years remaining on his six-year, $28.2 million contract ($4.7 million average annual value with a modified no-trade clause).
McDonagh is the Rangers’ most certain choice to protect on defense, even though he does not have a no-movement clause like Staal and Girardi do, which forces the Rangers to make difficult choices with their defense. The only simple choice for them is to protect McDonagh.
As it has been stressed, the Rangers’ defense is their greatest weakness and Girardi contributes to that in a significant way. His no-movement clause requires the Rangers to protect him unless he waives it or is bought out—both of which are realistic options.
Girardi is under contract for another three seasons, with a cap hit of $5.5 million (six-year, $33 million contract). He has a modified no-trade clause along with his no-movement clause. Not only has Girardi declined in recent seasons, but it seems highly unlikely that the 33-year-old will rebound.
Even while paired with the Rangers’ best defenceman in McDonagh, Girardi’s performance has nonetheless been less than desirable, often making McDonagh’s possession numbers look worse than they otherwise would. His point total from the regular season of 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 63 games is not the issue – as Girardi is considered a shutdown, stay-at-home defenceman. As much as that may be is role, he is not particularly effective in it, and it is not just because as a top pair defenseman he faces the toughest matchups. In fact, like McDonagh, the rest of the team’s play drops when they are on the ice with Girardi.
With Girardi on the ice in the regular season, the Rangers were the least effective in suppressing shot attempts – as exemplified by his high 66.02 Corsi against per 60. Many of those shot attempts translated to shots against, leading the Rangers to face some of the highest shots against with Girardi on the ice (32.3 shots against per 60, the highest of the defense). This contributes to Girardi’s 2.73 expected goals against per 60, which is also the highest of the defensemen.
While it seems that Girardi will be protected by the Rangers because of his NMC, him waiving his clause or being bought out is still within the realm of possibility. If the Rangers bought out Girardi, they would owe him $1.11 million in each of the next six seasons. The hit on the salary cap would vary, though: $2.61 million in 2017-18, $3.61 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20, and $1.11 million in each of the three seasons after that. But, the Rangers would save $2.89 million next season and then $1.89 each year for the following two seasons.
Staal, age 30, put together a number of strong seasons for the Rangers upon breaking into the NHL in 2007-08, rewarding the club for trading up in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft to select him 12th overall. His skating, decision-making, and defensive positioning were all superb, and he quickly became one of the Rangers’ most relied-upon blueliners. He even began to tap into some offensive potential in 2009-10 and 2010-11, notching 27 points and 29 points, respectively.
Sadly, concussions and a horrific eye injury in 2013 seem to have derailed his career. His speed and puck-moving ability are mere shells of what they once were. The Rangers, though, chose to reward Staal for his past successes rather than approach his future through a more cautious and rational lens. In 2015, they signed him to a six-year contract extension that carries an annual cap hit of $5.7 million.
That contract, which still has another four years left, is weighing down the Rangers’ salary cap. It also carries a no-movement clause (NMC), meaning the Rangers are forced to protect Staal in the expansion draft unless they request that he waive the clause (and he obliges), they manage to trade him, or they buy out his contract.
The latter option of a buyout would create a less-than-desirable situation for the Rangers, as they would be charged with $2.13 million against the salary cap in 2017-18 and 2018-19, $3.13 million in 2019-20, $3.93 million in 2020-21, and then $1.43 million for each of the next four seasons after that. So they would save some money against the cap, but they would be carrying dead weight on the cap all the way through 2024-25.
Of course, the Rangers are already in a less-than-desirable situation with Staal’s contract and declining play on their hands. Staal’s offense has pretty much diminished, as he only had 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the regular season. That would be fine, however, if he could play solidly in his own end.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. While Staal was actually slightly better this past season than in 2015-16, he still posted a poor Corsi-for mark of 46.91 percent, and he was perhaps the Rangers’ worst defenseman in the playoffs, frequently failing to help the Rangers protect leads while head coach Alain Vigneault nevertheless continued to trot him and his partner, Holden, out on the ice in critical situations.
Despite his deteriorating game and poor playoff showing, Staal still might have more left in the tank than Girardi. Girardi’s contract would also result in a less painful buyout for the Rangers, so that might be the route they take. As a result, Staal would still be protected via his NMC. If that is the case and he’s on the roster to start next season, the Rangers would be wise to give him sheltered, third-pair minutes.
Smith, a pending UFA, was excellent for the Rangers after coming over in a trade deadline deal for a 2017 third-round pick and a 2018 second-round pick. He provided the club with many of the traits that the Staal of yesteryear once possessed, namely mobility, shot suppression, and above-average puck-moving skills.
Smith also brought an element of edge and nastiness to the Rangers and was part of an excellent, albeit underutilized, defensive tandem with Skjei in the postseason. The two of them had some of the better scoring-chance differentials for the Rangers in their series against Ottawa, while others struggled.
A former late first-round pick of the Red Wings in 2007, Smith, now 28, has never really lived up to the offensive potential he displayed at the collegiate level with Wisconsin. He has, however, carved out a niche as a reliable defender who would fit nicely into most teams’ second pair—where he should be with the Rangers next season.
It would behoove the team to sign Smith before he hits the open market on July 1. There are indications that the Rangers will likely have discussions with him and his agent prior to that point, and the presumed asking price of $4 million to $4.5 million over four or five years is reasonable enough.
The exact strategy and timing around retaining Smith, though, will depend on what else the Rangers want to pursue ahead of the expansion draft. If they buy out Girardi (or Staal), they will have a protection slot open up for Smith, meaning they could sign him and protect him before the expansion draft.
If the Rangers also want to deal from their surplus of quality forwards to acquire more help on the back end (one of those great defensemen from Nashville or Anaheim would go a long way toward improving the Rangers), then they would need to protect that acquisition. As such, they would have to leave Smith exposed and hope the Golden Knights do not pursue him in their exclusive free agency window.
Since the Golden Knights can only select up to 10 pending free agents, that might reduce the chances that they would take Smith if he were exposed. The Rangers could also hedge their bet by offering Vegas a mid-to-late-round draft pick to not select Smith—essentially a bribe.
In any event, retaining Smith should be a priority for the Rangers.
Regardless of his no-movement clause, the Rangers would still nonetheless protect Lundqvist, as he is the backbone of the team. Lundqvist is signed for another four years with a cap hit of $8.5 million (a seven-year, $59.5 million contract).
Although Lundqvist may have had a lesser season, going 31-20-4 in his 57 appearances with a .910 save percentage and 2.74 goals against average, his postseason play demonstrated how impressive Lundqvist still is.
Prior to going on to win gold with Team Sweden at the 2017 IIHF World Championship, Lundqvist led the Blueshirts through the postseason. Lundqvist was a game-changer, especially in the quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens. At five-on-five, he had a .937 save percentage and 4.74 goals saved above average. He managed to have the second highest high-danger save percentage (.871) even after facing 70 high-danger shots against.
Lundqvist will unquestionably be the Rangers’ protected netminder, which subsequently exposes backup Antti Raanta.
With the Rangers undoubtedly protecting Lundqvist, that leaves backup Antti Raanta exposed, and the Rangers with a real risk of losing him.
Raanta, who just turned 28, has been an excellent backup goaltender in his two seasons with the Rangers. In 2015-16, he posted 11 wins with a 2.24 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. This past season, he was a critical player for the Rangers, filling in for a struggling Lundqvist for a few games in the middle of the season before the King got his game back. In all, Raanta increased his win total from the previous season to 16 while sporting a very solid .922 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average.
Raanta was reliable all-around for the Rangers this past season, as his high-danger, medium-danger, and low-danger save percentages at five-on-five were all above the league averages for each category. He also had an excellent expected goals saved above average per 60 mark of 0.2263—again, well above the league average mark, which by definition is 0.00.
The Rangers have to protect Lundqvist, as he is the face of the franchise and still a solid performer based on the playoffs. Raanta, though, will likely be near the top of the list of the goalies Vegas considers selecting.
Exposed Defensemen and Goaltender
The most routine approach on defense would be for the Rangers to protect McDonagh, Staal, and Girardi. If so, that leaves Clendening, Kevin Klein, Holden, Steven Kampfer, and Smith exposed.
Since Smith is a pending unrestricted free agent and the Golden Knights can only select 10 free agents, it betters the Rangers’ chances of retaining him if he is exposed. Clendening is also a free agent (restricted), which again lessens the chances that the Golden Knights pursue him—however, he is a cheap option and had an impressive season in his limited appearances.
Klein had success with the Rangers in prior seasons, but this season’s performance paired with his $2.9 million cap hit for another season makes him less enticing. Holden, on the surface, had solid offensive numbers, as well as a low cap hit of $1.65 million for another season. That might make him a reasonable option for Vegas, even though his success is not likely to be duplicated, nor does it mask his defensive shortcomings.
General manager George McPhee must select at least three goaltenders through the draft, one of which may very well be Raanta. Along with his impressive play, his contract makes him an attractive option, as he is signed for another season for $1 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent. Although there may be more well-known commodities in net, like Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, available to the Golden Knights, Raanta’s age and cap hit make him a plausible option.
*All CF%, SCF%, xGF%, and other possession data is at five-on-five, via Corsica.hockey.
Graduated NYU in 2016 with a Masters in Sports Business. Covering the Vegas Golden Knights from New York.