Five Off-Season Predictions for the New York Rangers

By: Michael Abitabilo

The New York Rangers 2013 season came to a merciful end on Saturday. I say merciful because, from day one, this team seemed to be missing something. Their late season run to the playoffs and first round victory against Washington only seemed to delay the inevitable. In many ways, the Washington series was a microcosm of the season as a whole: a slow start, followed by a rally, followed by a brief period where they seemed out of it until a late surge propelled them to victory.  At the outset of the season, the Rangers were picked by many to compete for if not win the Stanley Cup. Now, after being dominated by the Boston Bruins in the second round of the playoffs, the team and its fans are left to wonder, “now what?” With that, here are five predictions for the off-season. Before next season begins, I will revisit these predictions to see how I did.

1.   The Rangers  will   will not  will buy out Brad Richards. Just last week, I wrote that John Tortorella’s decision to scratch Richards from games four and five versus Boston may have been indicative of an organizational decision to buy out Brad Richards during the off-season. After great deliberation, and even as I am writing this, I still can’t decide whether I think it will  really will happen.  Here is why it should happen.

Save for a six game span to end the regular season during which he scored 11 points (many of which were incredibly lucky), Richards was dreadful this season. This wasn’t the typical case of an aging star whose performance began to decline – his lack of production (34 points in 46 games) was only part of the story. Richards was a player who not only failed to make big plays in big spots, but more often than not made bad plays that hurt his team. His passes were off the mark, his shots missed the net, and his skating and defense were noticeably poor. While MSG network didn’t give us the benefit of a replay, I’m fairly certain he actually blocked a Mats Zuccarello shot from going into the net during the must-win game six of the Washington series. All of this ultimately landed Richards on the fourth line for several games before he was a healthy scratch.

Credit Larry Brooks of the New York Post for being the first person I saw to broach the subject of an off-season buyout back in February, just weeks into the lockout-shortened season. For those unfamiliar: under the recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement, all teams are allowed up to two “compliance buyouts,” which were designed to help teams deal with a salary cap that is projected to decrease in years two and three of the new agreement. Players who are bought out are paid a percentage of the remaining value on their contracts and become free agents. Once a player has been bought out, neither his original contract nor the buyout money counts towards his former team’s salary cap.

Richards is under contract through the 2020 season (not a typo), with an annual cap hit of over $6.6 million. (By the way, thanks to some, uh, creative-accounting-which-was-definitely-not-cap-circumvention-but-is-no-longer-allowed-under-the-new-CBA, Richards’ actual salary was $12 million in each of the first two years of his deal). This off-season, the Rangers will certainly look to re-sign several important players who are restricted free agents, including Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Carl Hagelin – each of whom will receive a significant raise. After next season, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan, and Dan Girardi will all become unrestricted free agents, meaning any team can bid for their services. If the Rangers wish to keep their core intact and attract additional free agents, the Rangers cannot continue to pay Richards at an elite level. Thus, it’s a virtual lock that Richards will be bought out, but the real question is when, as the new CBA allows teams to exercise this option in June of 2013 or June of 2014. While it would seem logical to rip the Band-Aid off now and move on, here is why it might not happen this year.

The primary benefit associated with a Richards buyout would be cap relief. Right now, the Rangers have approximately $51 million committed to next year’s cap, which is projected to be around $64 million. Assuming the Rangers spend an additional $10 million (total) per year to re-sign McDonagh, Stepan and Hagelin, they would have about $3 million in cap space. If they were to be able to free up additional cap space through trades (so long, Taylor Pyatt), they could still have enough space to try to re-sign Ryan Clowe and/or look to sign other free agents.

About those free agents… This year’s crop of unrestricted free agents is less than stellar (i.e., really bad) when it comes to elite/expensive talent.  Tortorella has repeatedly said he thought this year’s team lacked depth and grit, but these are elements that can be obtained through trades or by adding less expensive free agents. Despite the cap relief a Richards buyout would provide, it would leave the Rangers with even less depth at the center position.  The Rangers could decide to give Richards one more season if for no other reason than to buy time until the 2014 off-season, when the pool of free agents will include several elite players (oh hello, Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron, et al.).

Ultimately, though, my guess is the Rangers exercise the buyout sooner rather than later, thus avoiding the risk of a serious injury that would make Richards ineligible to be amnestied.  The additional cap space will help the Rangers next year and beyond, and will allow Richards to get a new start elsewhere without the specter of a potential buyout hanging over him and the team all season.

If Richards is a member of the Rangers next year, it will be a testament to Tortorella’s influence on personnel decisions.  If not, it could be an equally telling sign as to Tortorella’s own standing in the organization following a subpar season. (No, he will not be fired in the off-season, but if the team is under-performing at the halfway point next year, Tortorella might find himself back in the TSN studio.)

* Editors’ Note: Nothing important ever appears in a parenthetical! 

2.   The Rangers will trade Michael Del Zotto. What do Scott Gomez, Wade Redden, Brad Richards Michael Del Zotto and, to a lesser extent, Matt Cullen, and Derek Morris all have in common? All of them were said to be the “power play quarterback” the Rangers have not had since Brian Leetch, and were going to help fix the Rangers’ perpetually broken power play.  None of them has succeeded in that role.

It would appear Del Zotto has become somewhat expendable following the emergence of John Moore, who was brought over in the trade that sent Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 22-year old Moore has played well enough in his brief tenure with the Rangers that Tortorella not only inserted him onto the power play during the playoffs (albeit temporarily), but referred to him as a “[Ryan McDonagh] clone” – high praise from the often youth-averse coach.

There does not appear to be room on the roster for both Moore and Del Zotto in the long term.  Along with Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, they are two of the Rangers’ four left-handed defensemen.  Ideally, teams like their top six defensemen to comprise of three left-handers and three right-handers.  Even if the Rangers are legitimately concerned that alternate captain Staal will want to play with his brothers in Carolina when his contract expires in 2015, the Rangers are unlikely to maintain an unbalanced defense corps for the next two seasons.

Finally, it’s worth noting that both players are under contract through next season, but Michael Del Zotto’s cap hit is $2.5 million, while Moore’s is just $965k.

Look for the Rangers to move Del Zotto in exchange for a veteran defenseman with size and grit – something the Rangers have been missing for several years now. Alternatively, if the Rangers think Dylan McIlrath (6’5”, 220 lbs.) is ready for the jump to the NHL (if not now then when?), they could trade Del Zotto for a forward prospect and/or draft picks.  Bonus prediction: John Moore adds insult to Del Zotto’s injury by taking his number 4 next season.

3.   The Rangers will re-sign Ryan Clowe to a four-year, $14.5 million contract. This is essentially the same prediction I made when the Rangers first acquired Clowe.  During his brief tenure with the Rangers, Clowe was solid, but not great. While Tortorella publicly lauded Clowe for his toughness and willingness to do the dirty work, the reality is Clowe looked slow at times, and scored only three goals in 14 games (including the playoffs), two of which were scored in his Rangers debut.

Nonetheless, the Rangers – like the rest of the league – want players who are big, strong, physical, and can score. Before re-signing Clowe, the Rangers will likely kick the tires on Bruins’ free agent Nathan Horton during the off-season, who is at the top of the class in this regard. But unless they buy out Richards, the organization might be hesitant (if not unable) to commit the dollars and years it will take to sign Mr. Tammy Plante (probably five years for around $23-25 million). David Clarkson of the Devils is also an intriguing option, but the Rangers have been burned several times by singing former Devils to lucrative contracts. While the back-to-back concussions Clowe suffered may cost him a few bucks, I still think he will receive several four year offers provided he is healthy, including one from the Rangers.

4.   The Rangers will sign Ryan O’Byrne. Regardless of whether they move Del Zotto, the Rangers will be in the market for a defenseman or two. Roman Hamrlik, Matt Gilroy and Steve Eminger will all be free agents on July 1.  Hamrlik and Gilroy have about as much of a chance of playing for the Rangers next year as I do, and while Eminger has been steady in his time in New York, the Rangers will probably want to add someone with more size and nastiness to their existing fleet of smooth-skating (mostly left-handed) defensemen. At 6’5” and 234 lbs., the right-handed O’Byrne fits the bill. Mark Fistric, who currently plays for the Edmonton Oilers, might be a cheaper alternative, but isn’t quite as big and is another left-hander.

5.   Henrik Lundqvist and I will meet and become really good bros. Hey, a guy can dream, right?

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and would love to read your predictions below!