When Derick Brassard was traded for 23-year-old Swedish center Mika Zibanejad on Monday, the Rangers direction was changed. Instead of being another team that have all their marbles in to win the Stanley Cup this year, the front office has made the choice to backtrack and consider the future, downgrading now for a potential boom a few years from now. With RFAs Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes still yet to sign, there will likely be about four million dollars in extra cap room to either make a trade to bring in another player or sign someone out of the bare free agent pool. While GM Jeff Gorton hasn’t dealt with the seemingly biggest issue that the Rangers have with their average-at-best defensive core, he has done a very good job to better the future of the team.
Taking Steps Forward
Within the next few weeks, the Rangers front office brass will have to make a few decisions based on the current status of the Rangers. While the Rangers are just two seasons removed from a deep run in the playoffs and three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup run, this Rangers team could likely be as talented as either of those teams with a few small moves and a little bit of luck. First things first, with the cap room after the RFA signings of Kreider and Hayes, the Rangers can go one of two directions. Most would agree that the Rangers are a fringe playoff team with those RFA signings and there are a few problems that need to be dealt with if they plan to be a contending team come April.
The first problem is the defensive core is a mix of unexperienced players. Rangers fans are banking on Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath to be extremely important for the future. Skjei showed flashes of extreme talent against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, showing off both defensive and offensive sides. He showed his impeccable hockey sense and great skating ability, while also cementing himself as a Rangers defenseman at the start of this season. McIlrath showed a few flashes of great ability as well but chances are he is more likely going to be a third-pairing defenseman who isn’t afraid to bully players trying to get in the face of his nightly netminder. While having these two young, talented skaters on the back-end is a very good sign for the future, McIlrath may not get the opportunity to play much this season with Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, Kevin Klein, Brady Skjei, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal likely to be the six defensemen who man the blue line for the Rangers.
The next problem is a lack of a superstar skater. While Rick Nash has shown flashes that he can be the best player on the ice in both the regular season and the playoffs, he has struggled to do both in the same season. While every team to win the Stanley Cup over the last ten years has had a bona fide superstar skater, the Rangers simply don’t have the guarantee that they will have a real superstar to lead the team to victory. While Henrik Lundqvist is as good as they get in net, the blueshirts are lacking of a Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby to be dangerous every time they touch the ice. Solving this issue is incredibly difficult and has to be treated delicately. Superstars are usually grown from within the organization so unless someone steps up from inside the organization, chances are the Rangers will need to rely on everyone being able to produce to make up for the lack of a player that you know will step up and put up a point per game in the playoffs which they haven’t had since the Stanley Cup run a few seasons.
Veteran Help One Call Away
The Rangers haven’t struggled in outscoring their opponents over the last few years by any means and I feel as if a veteran addition to the team would be another huge help in helping the young players develop to being the best players they can be. With players like Miller, Zibanejad, Fast, Lindberg, Kreider, Buchnevich, and Hayes all still 25 or under, the easiest way to get the most out of them is by providing them with skilled veterans around them. With Nash, Stepan, and Zuccarello being the three veterans with top six talent on the team, the Rangers could definitely use another veteran forward who can open up the offensive zone and help the younger talent flourish.
With both Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata available in free agency, the best possible move the Rangers could still make without making a trade would be acquiring one of these talented forwards. Both Vrbata and Hudler are one season removed from 31 goal seasons and placing either of these guys around the mounds of talent the Rangers currently have, they could provide immense help in the goal scoring department to try to give Henrik Lunqdvist and Antti Raanta goal support and make their jobs easier.
A Bright Future?
For the first time in a while, the future of the organization looks bright. After a seemingly great draft, the Rangers are replenishing the prospect pool while a major part of the NHL team will be talented young players looking to break out. With that talent, they need to continue building the prospect pool. With prospects Ryan Gropp, Robin Kovacs, Ryan Graves, Malte Stromwall, and a multitude of goalie prospects lead by Brandon Halverson who is likely a future NHL starter. With at least six skaters under 25 being full-season roster players, the future is seemingly bright and will only become brighter with the progression of the young talent.
Many have scrutinized the moves of the front office over trading young talent but it seems at least at this point in time that the Rangers are beginning to look towards winning both now and in the future instead of putting all their eggs in the win-now basket, which is a direction Rangers fans are cautious but excited about, with good reason. Rangers fans are used to being competitive, missing the playoffs just once since 2003. With three conference finals appearances over the last five years and no Stanley Cup, the front office is moving in a direction putting the future in mind while maintaining competitive as long as there are no more trades made with high picks or can’t miss prospects involved.
With a win now team that has young talent who is still developing, cap room is going to be essential to keep the talented players around on the team. With Zibanejad, Fast, Lindberg, and McIlrath being RFA eligible next year, there will likely need to be a few million dollars open to be able to sign all four of them. Every one of those players seems to fit into the picture when one looks at the Rangers future endeavors. Chances are that only Zibanejad will require a major raise out of the four eligible players which means there won’t be major overhaul necessary unless the team fizzles out this year. This all means that the next few years will look very good for the Rangers and hopefully some success will come off of the proficient cap management done this year.