Rangers Should Target Cap-Strapped Lightning Roster

The New York Rangers continued clearing salary cap room Saturday, trading career Blueshirt Marc Staal and his $5.7 million salary to the Detroit Red Wings, a move that cost them a 2021 second-round draft pick. That deal pushed the club’s available space north of $20 million, with a likely buyout of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist set to add $3 million more.

That’s good, because the Rangers have several personnel needs to address amidst a rebuilding project that is entering its next phase. The front office will now look to use some of the young talent it has accumulated in concert with the sizable cap space to target holes in the club’s lineup.

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The top priority is likely a long-term solution at the No. 2 center spot. Also, the departures of Staal, Brady Skjei (last season), and possibly Brendan Smith – a buyout/buried-in-the-minors candidate – leaves the left side of the defense as the next area to be rebuilt. And the Rangers may need a veteran defender on the right side, should they pass on offering Tony DeAngelo an expensive long-term contract and trade his rights instead.

Where to begin? Well, the place to start for general manager Jeff Gorton might be sunny Florida, where the Stanley Cup champion but cap-crunched Tampa Bay Lightning might have little choice but to part with at least one of their inexpensive and improving young players.

John Davidson Jeff Gorton New York Rangers 2019 NHL Draft
Rangers president John Davidson (l) and general manager Jeff Gorton (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Lightning’s problem – namely, being only $5.3 million below next season’s flat cap – could provide the perfect solution for filling the holes in the Rangers’ roster. So let’s take a look at Tampa Bay’s candidates for cost-saving – and how they might fit on Broadway next season.

Anthony Cirelli

Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay’s 23-year-old center, has been the subject of constant trade speculation as the season has progressed, as the restricted free agent is a highly desired commodity that’s due for a sizable raise. His price has likely grown higher thanks to a strong performance in the postseason, during which he often stepped into the injured Steven Stamkos’ spot on the Lightning’s top line and proved the stage wasn’t too big for him with three goals and six assists in 25 games.

Cirelli’s strong two-way, north-south game, speed and nose for the net are attributes that Tampa certainly doesn’t want to lose. His point totals have increased from 11 to 39 to 44 over his first three seasons, with his plus-minus marks going from plus-11 to plus-25 to plus-28 in the same span. The Lightning’s third-round pick in 2015 has also recorded a Corsi for percentage of at least 52.6 in each of those seasons.

Anthony Cirelli Tampa Bay Lightning
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yet, with just over $5 million in cap space, numerous players to re-sign, and with Brayden Point and Stamkos already ahead of Cirelli on the depth chart (and signed to expensive deals), Lightning management might need to swallow hard and trade him with his value at a high after the playoffs.

It will take more than the Rangers’ second first-round pick (22nd overall) in the draft next month to pry Cirelli away. Yet he should be a prime target for general manager Jeff Gorton as New York looks to secure a rising young center to play behind Mika Zibanejad.

Mikhail Sergachev

While the Rangers have a strong group of prospects ready for a look at left defense, some of them could – and certainly would – be sacrificed should the Lightning make Mikhail Sergachev available. Just 22, the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft by the Montreal Canadiens has firmly established himself as a future top-pair defender, blending sound defensive play, physicality and offense to put himself in line to earn riches very soon.

It seems likely that re-signing the restricted free agent would be GM Julien Brisebois’ top priority, given the premium position Sergachev plays. Yet it won’t be easy for the Lightning as they finally face the salary-cap reckoning that has been coming for some time. Tampa Bay would demand quite a bit in any deal for the 6-foot-3, 215 pounder. The Rangers had hoped to get Sergachev (or Point) included in the teams’ blockbuster 2018 trade in which Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller headed south, but then-Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman wisely balked.

Mikhail Sergachev Tampa Bay Lightning
Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Trading for Sergachev now would prove costly, to say the least. Would Gorton instead violate the unwritten rule of not signing other teams’ players to offer sheets, given the Lightning’s precarious financial position? The Canadiens might have provided some cover for the Rangers here, having signed Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho to a five-year, $42 million offer sheet last offseason that the Hurricanes matched.

The last player to change teams on an offer sheet was Dustin Penner, who went from the Anaheim Ducks to the Edmonton Oilers in 2007.

Could this work for the Rangers? Theoretically, yes. An offer sheet that comes in between $4,227,437 to $6,341,152 per year requires compensation of first- and third-round picks the following year. Would the organization make that sacrifice for what could be a top-pair defender for a decade?

Obtaining Sergachev this way is a longshot. The price is steep, the Rangers may not want to go the route of angering the Lightning by breaking the aforementioned unwritten rules, and Tampa Bay would likely do everything in its power to avoid losing Sergachev this way. Also, the Rangers’ last foray into this avenue of player acquisition didn’t go as planned.

Still … the Lightning’s options are very limited. Given that and the fact that the salary cap will be flat next season and possibly for the foreseeable future, a Rangers offer sheet to Sergachev might not be the most far-fetched scenario. They’d certainly have to give up first- and third-rounders if they were to trade for his rights, should the Russian become available that way. Stay tuned.

Steven Stamkos

Hear us out before rolling your eyes (which you’re of course entitled to do at any time). This option might not be any less off the wall for the Rangers than signing Sergachev to an offer sheet – and the Lightning might be considerably more amenable to this solution to their cap problems than having to ship out their young left defenseman and/or Cirelli.

Look at it from Tampa Bay’s perspective and it makes more sense: Steven Stamkos is signed for the next four seasons at $8.5 million per. The club has the 24-year-old Point, who’s recorded 262 points in 295 NHL games and scored 41 goals in 2018-19, and Cirelli ready to step in as a formidable long-term 1-2 punch at center.

Stamkos, though still in his prime, played only 57 of 70 games this season due to injury and made only one brief appearance in the playoffs (though he did score a goal in that game, the Lightning’s 5-2 win in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final).

While the injury-shortened season represents an element of risk for the Rangers, it should also drive down Stamkos’ price in a trade – which is likely to already be depressed by Tampa Bay’s need to cut salary, and other teams’ knowledge that ready replacements exist on the Lightning’s roster. It’s a rare opportunity for the Rangers to acquire a premium player at a less-than-premium price. Gorton shouldn’t give away too much for Stamkos in such a trade, given the pressures BriseBois is facing to make the money work next season.

Perhaps Stamkos, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, isn’t the long-term solution for the Rangers, but the 30-year-old would give them a suddenly formidable situation down the middle – and help accelerate the Blueshirts’ return to contention. He’d join Zibanejad to allow the promising Filip Chytil to continue his development on the third line – if Chytil is in fact best suited to play center. The Rangers’ desperation for depth at the position should push them to at least inquire about Stamkos, who totaled 86 and 98 points in the previous two seasons before recording 66 in 57 games in 2019-20.

Put it this way: Would the Lightning, who made it through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup almost entirely without their captain, prefer to clear $8.5 million from the books and get a decent return in a trade, or have to part with potential pieces of their future core in Cirelli and/or Sergachev? Dumping Stamkos might allow them to keep both players, though they’ll still need space to address their needs on defense.

Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A buyout of Lundqvist and buyout or burying of Smith in the minors (approximately $1-1.5 million in savings) are additional options for the Rangers to open cap space. Additionally, obtaining Stamkos would mean not spending money on re-signing Ryan Strome, who would become redundant, though the Blueshirts would probably still have to bid farewell to either DeAngelo or UFA forward Jesper Fast.

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However, the numbers can work, especially with the club gaining significant cap room starting in 2021-22. The Rangers would get to acquire one of the top offensive players in the league at a reasonable price, both in salary and compensation to the Lightning.

Still sound ridiculous? Eye roll away.

Zach Bogosian/Luke Schenn

The Rangers adding one of these two rugged right defensemen who resurrected their careers with Tampa Bay this season would probably be contingent on DeAngelo being traded. Both are unrestricted free agents and could probably be had on relatively affordable one-year deals, with either player slotting in on the third pair for the Rangers in DeAngelo’s old spot.

While Zach Bogosian or Luke Schenn would be serving as placeholders until prospect Nils Lundkvist arrives, either one of them would bring a badly needed element of toughness and veteran steadiness to the Blueshirts’ back end. The Rangers had positive results in a similar scenario in 2018-19, when they acquired Adam McQuaid from the Boston Bruins.

Luke Schenn Tampa Bay Lightning
Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The sticking point might be Bogosian and/or Schenn being able to command multi-year contracts – a place Gorton might not want to go with cap space at such a premium in the next few seasons.

Lightning a One-Stop Shop for Rangers?

Gorton and the front office will explore all possible scenarios to improve the roster, but the Lightning’s cap mess and variety of talented candidates to be moved out might make them a preferred offseason shopping destination. The Rangers would be foolish to not seriously consider trying to obtain at least one of Tampa Bay’s desirable pieces as they try to achieve the heights the Lightning reached Monday night.

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