The physically-freakish, power-and-speed winger or the power-play sparkplug on the blue line?
Unfortunately for the New York Rangers, that might be the choice they face over the next several days as the trade deadline bears down on them with key decisions needing to be made that will profoundly affect their rebuild.
And while the Blueshirts have to make decisions on whether to move several veterans in what would be a third straight year of selling off with an eye on the future, the most critical issue can possibly be distilled down to one major choice: Do they want to keep Chris Kreider or Tony DeAngelo long-term?
A look at the club’s salary cap situation going forward shows that this might prove to be true – that affording both Kreider and DeAngelo given other necessary financial commitments might be impossible.
Of the two, only Kreider’s situation absolutely has to be resolved by Monday’s deadline. The pending unrestricted free agent will either be signed to an extension or sent off to a contender, with the smart money on the career Ranger being traded as perhaps the top rental option on the market. The value of the 19th overall pick in the 2009 Draft has never been higher, putting the Blueshirts in the driver’s seat as they seek the best possible return.
DeAngelo will be a restricted free agent without arbitration rights this offseason, so the club is under no pressure to deal with his situation now. Still, their decision on Kreider will directly impact their options with DeAngelo, the only other key pending Rangers free agent who is potentially in line for big money and contract term over the summer.
Should the Rangers come to a late agreement with Kreider, their 216-pound forward who skates like the wind and might finally reach the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career this season, that will likely mean something along the lines of $6 to $7 million per year over six to seven years. Is Kreider worth it? Perhaps, given the uncommon dimensions he brings to the Blueshirts’ lineup – speed, finishing power off the rush and proficiency and willingness to stand in front of the net that’s unmatched by anyone on the roster.
Rangers to Face Tough Salary Cap Decisions Soon
Kreider was a force again in Wednesday’s 6-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks with a goal and two assists, his strength and skating again giving pause to the sound reasoning for moving him at the deadline. He has 24 goals and 21 assists on the season, and that’s to say nothing of the leadership role the 28-year-old has assumed in the dressing room for the youngest team in the NHL. Trading him would leave a huge hole in the roster and the team’s psyche.
General manager Jeff Gorton surely knows, though, that keeping Kreider probably means he’ll have to sacrifice the player that’s perhaps as responsible as anyone for the club’s newfound lethality on the power play this season. DeAngelo’s 15 power-play points are tied for third on the team, and his mobility out of his own end and lateral quickness atop the offensive zone has had the effect of breaking down opposing defenses and creating space for Artemi Panarin, Kreider and others on the power play as well as even strength. His 45 points (13 goals, 32 assists) are fifth on the team, and he’s posted a plus-15 rating on the season.
DeAngelo returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury and recorded two assists – one on the power play – and a plus-3 rating, exhibiting the dynamism at even strength and with the man advantage that was clearly absent in Friday’s win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Sunday’s loss to the Boston Bruins.
Could the Rangers keep both players? Again, it just doesn’t seem likely.
The club’s projected cap hit is nearly $66 million for next season. Assuming a typical increase in the cap in the $2 million range, to around $84 million, that would leave approximately $18 million in space. Should Kreider come in at around $7 million per season, and DeAngelo in the $4 to $5 million range on a bridge contract or longer-term deal, there would seem to be plenty of room, right?
Using $11 million combined as an estimate for signing both players, that would leave $8 million. Still to be signed: forward Brendan Lemieux, whose contributions have proved invaluable this season and who is due for a bridge deal that would likely come in at the $2 to $3 million neighborhood; goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (assuming he isn’t traded), probably looking at a similar bridge pact for around $2 million per; and any number of forwards to fill out the roster, either the extending of Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast or others that would need to take the minutes of that pair, should they be dealt.
In short, it would get tight quickly, with little or no room to maneuver next season – especially with $7.5 million in dead money (and perhaps more) counting against the cap for 2020-21 and impacting personnel flexibility. An increasingly likely June buyout of Henrik Lundqvist’s contract would certainly help, saving $3 million in cap space. It’s not just about next season, however.
Zibanejad, Youngsters Coming Due for Raises
The Rangers are scheduled to shed nearly $19 million in cap hits after 2020-21 due to the expiring deals of Lundqvist, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith. That leaves the club’s estimated cap hit at a very favorable $34.6 million for 2021-22. However, that doesn’t account for potential long-term deals for Kreider and DeAngelo – and then there’s the near future.
Igor Shesterkin, Filip Chytil, Ryan Lindgren and Brett Howden are RFAs after next season, Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko after 2021-22. With perhaps the exception of Howden, on whom the jury’s still out, all of those players look like parts of the Rangers’ foundation going forward. They’ll need to be accounted for in the salary cap picture, as will any of the club’s other highly regarded prospects who might find their way to Broadway in the next few seasons.
All of that near-future cap room could disappear very quickly – especially with No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad up for a big extension after 2021-22. That makes long, expensive deals for Kreider and DeAngelo potentially big headaches not too far down the line.
Would the Rangers really trade DeAngelo, a throw-in to the Derek Stepan trade with the Arizona Coyotes in June 2017 who is making what would otherwise be a disastrous deal look like a win for Gorton? The front office may have tipped its hand on that question with Tuesday’s acquisition of young forward Julien Gauthier from the Carolina Hurricanes for defense prospect Joey Keane. Like Kreider, Gauthier is a big guy who skates exceptionally well, and he had some impressive moments in his Rangers debut Wednesday.
Kreider and DeAngelo have driven their prices up significantly this season – both for the Rangers and potential trade suitors. We’ll know by Monday whether the Blueshirts have decided to pay the freight for both, just one, or instead reap the benefits of the sky-high value of two players with whom parting will be extremely painful.
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I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.