Rangers’ 2nd-Line Center Options for 2022-23

The New York Rangers have historically been weak down the middle. Dating back to their playoff runs and Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014, their center depth was always lacking. According to Cap Friendly, general manager (GM) Chris Drury now faces the daunting task of filling the second-line center void with just a meagre $10.2 million in cap space to work with.

If you want to take the optimistic approach, the good news is there are many center options available this offseason for the Rangers to consider. If you want to take the pessimistic approach, these options are likely too expensive for Drury to obtain, as he must consider the cost of upcoming contracts for Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller next season.

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In a tight salary cap world that was only clasped tighter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rangers find themselves in a rather tricky predicament. Ryan Strome and deadline acquisition Andrew Copp are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and are reportedly set to test the market (from ‘Cash-strapped Rangers eye trade market to fill looming void at center,’ New York Post, 07/01/22).

Per the aforementioned article by Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Drury appears to be looking at the trade route instead of free agency. The trade block is rich with options as well. Quality players on expiring deals are available, but the question around obtaining them remains the same; can you afford to re-sign them when their contract expires?

Nevertheless, it appears as if the second-line center role is open for the taking. So while the hockey world gets set for the draft in Montreal on July 7, let’s look at what options are available for Drury to go after.

Rangers’ Have a Plethora of Free Agent Targets

If Drury decides to go the free-agent route, there are plenty of names that he could pursue. The most familiar one to Rangers faithful is that of Evgeni Malkin. The 35-year-old Russian has been a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins since the 2006-07 season. Alongside Sidney Crosby, he has tormented the Rangers and the rest of the NHL for years.

Malkin is a short-term option, which serves the Rangers well, but the center is coming off a contract paying him $9.5 million per season. Although he won’t receive that salary on his next deal, he still won’t come cheap, leaving the Rangers with a difficult decision.

Nazem Kadri and Vincent Trocheck are two names the Rangers could also pursue. Kadri is coming off a career year with the high-flying Colorado Avalanche, tallying 87 points in 71 games. He was crucial in their run to the Stanley Cup and is looking to capitalize with a significant jump from his current $4.5 million salary.

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Although Kadri is a desirable option, his projected average annual value (AAV) is likely one the Rangers cannot afford. Trocheck is slightly younger at 28 years old, which could make term an issue for Drury. Coming off a contract with an AAV of $4.75 million, he will look for length and a salary bump. He tallied 51 points last season, and the Rangers would be prying him away from their division foes in Carolina, but he, too, would put the Blueshirts in financial hell for the all-important 2023 offseason.

Two other more likely options are Rickard Rakell and Paul Stastny. Rakell was a deadline acquisition of the Penguins and is entering free agency on the heels of a $3.79 million deal. If he is flexible with term, Drury might be able to lock down a good center at an affordable rate.

Despite the plus sides to the options mentioned above, Stastny seems to be the most realistic to obtain. At 36, a one-year deal could suffice, and his cost will not be close to what the other UFAs will command. The Winnipeg Jets’ center also won 56.57 percent of his faceoffs last season, which would fill a massive void down the middle for the Rangers. If Drury elects to find his second-line center through free agency, Stastny could be his guy.

Rangers’ Trade Options

Drury put on a masterclass at the trade deadline last season, bolstering a Rangers team en route to a Conference Final run. If he feels more comfortable going the trade route, Rangers fans should trust that his move will improve this group without hemorrhaging the future.

The Jets will likely be the team Drury finds himself on the phone with once again after making his biggest trade with them at last season’s trade deadline. Both Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mark Scheifele could be on the move, and the Blueshirts are possible landing spots for each. Dubois is the younger of the two at 24 years old to Scheifele’s 29, but the latter has two years remaining on his contract.

Starting with Dubois, there is the potential that he forces his way to Montreal, with the sentiment being that he wants to play at home. Only if the Rangers feel they can convince him to stay in New York would acquiring him make sense. Yet, the center still has room to grow in his game, despite being a quality two-way player already.

Related: Canucks J.T. Miller Trade Package Showdown: Rangers vs. Devils

Dubois would be a perfect fit in the second-line center position and is on the heels of a 60-point season. His linemate on the Rangers would be Artemi Panarin, rejoining the tandem that had significant success in their days together with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pierre-Luc Dubois Winnipeg Jets
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

His teammate might be a little harder to pry away from Winnipeg. Scheifele has been a Jet his entire career, but with the team trending in the wrong direction, a mutual parting could benefit both sides. His two-way game does not match Dubois’, but he is a gifted offensive weapon. Both won’t be easy to acquire, with the Rangers likely having to part ways with either Kaapo Kakko or Filip Chytil, plus draft capital and/or prospects.

Like Dubois, another possible one-year rental would be Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller. He is a former Ranger and has since solidified himself as a top-six center, and had a career-high 99 points last season along with a 54.1 faceoff percentage. Statistically, he is the center the Rangers have longed for, and coupling him with Zibanejad in the top-six would be daunting for opposing teams to defend.

Yet, Miller will be signing a rich long-term deal once his current contract expires, which will likely be at a price point the Rangers’ cannot afford. Does trading for a true rental make sense for Drury’s group depending on the price? That is the question he will need to answer.

True Blue for the Rangers

Internally, the Rangers could elect to fill the void with free agents Copp or Strome, or they could promote Chytil to the role of the second-line center. Both Strome and Copp are not entirely off the table. If either decides their heart remains in New York, a deal could be reached immediately.

Each UFA’s next contract presents issues with the Rangers’ current cap situation. Strome’s AAV will be less than Copp’s, but Drury is unwilling to give him the contract length he wants. If Strome won’t meet Drury on a short-term deal, the Rangers’ center for the past four seasons is unlikely to return.

As for Copp, the 27-year-old wants to capitalize on what was a successful stint with the Rangers. He boosted his value and rightfully intends to capitalize on that. By seeking to maximize this opportunity, he has taken a return to Broadway off the table. I expect the two sides to talk throughout this process, but it doesn’t look like Drury will budge enough to satisfy Copp’s asks.

If a deal is not reached with either UFA, promoting Chytil is a possible outcome. Before the postseason, this wouldn’t have been an option, but the Czech center blossomed on the biggest stage. Should Drury and the rest of the management team see it fit, Chytil could be given a promotion, and either Barclay Goodrow or a cost-efficient free agent could be brought in to fill the third-line center role.

What Direction Will Drury Go?

Promoting Chytil and bringing in Stastny on a cheap deal is an option that protects the cap and offers support for Chytil in case he struggles. It is indeed a possibility and one of the more realistic scenarios the Rangers have at play. I could see them chasing Miller or Dubois via trade, but the cost and uncertain future hinder the odds of that happening.

Although due diligence will be done on the free-agent front, none of the centers on the open market is a realistic option for a team as close to the cap as the Rangers are. What Drury does remains to be seen, but my guess would be a Chytil promotion with a cost-efficient third-line center or the re-signing of Copp or Strome.

There are many options for the Rangers’ GM, and with the offseason in full swing, expect action to start happening very soon.

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