Breaking Down the Rangers’ 2014 Off-Season

By: Michael Abitabilo

Now what? That’s the question the New York Rangers and their fans are left to ask following the abrupt end to their fairy tale ride to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Following about ten years of putridity, the Rangers have been good or better since 2005-2006, having made the playoffs in eight out of nine seasons in that span. The Rangers have entered each of the past three seasons with legitimate expectations of at least competing for a Stanley Cup Championship, but have come up short each time. Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather has shown a consistent willingness to Go For It in recent years by making a series of major trades and free agent acquisitions. With Henrik Lundqvist entering the twilight of his prime years, Sather will undoubtedly make more changes this off-season in an attempt to build a championship team. So that brings us back to our original question: now what?

The Rangers have difficult decisions to make in several key areas, each of which is explored in greater detail below.

Brad Richards

For the second off-season in a row, a major question for the Rangers is whether or not to buy out Brad Richards. Richards has six years remaining on his contract with an annual salary cap hit of $6.6 million.  We are currently in the final window during which teams are able to exercise the “compliance buyouts” contemplated in the most recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement, meaning if the Rangers don’t buy him out this off-season, Richards and his cap hit will most likely remain with the team until 2020.

Richards is no longer an elite playmaking center. Despite the perception that his overall game improved this season following a difficult 2013 campaign, his production actually decreased.  In fact, Richards’s points per game total has decreased each year since 2009-2010:

Season

Age

Team

Games Played

Points Per Game

2009-2010

29

DAL

80

1.14

2010-2011

30

DAL

72

1.07

2011-2012

31

NYR

82

0.80

2012-2013

32

NYR

46

0.74

2013-2014

33

NYR

82

0.62

While most pundits believe it to be a foregone conclusion that the putative captain of this year’s Eastern Conference champions will be bought out, his $6.6 million cap hit isn’t necessarily the reason why.  While Richards’s cap figure was the 21st highest in the NHL among forwards this season, it isn’t an absurd figure in light of the rapidly escalating price of free agents. Don’t believe me? In 82 games this season, Richards had 20 goals and 31 assists for 51 points. Last off-season, David Clarkson signed a 7-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs with an annual cap hit of $5.25 million. In 60 games, Clarkson had five goals and six assists. But Clarkson was coming off an excellent season and was signed for his combination of skill and grit and so he represents a different type of player than Richards. In the over-30-forwards-expected-to-produce-offensively category, Richards’s former teammate Vincent Lecavalier – himself a compliance buyout – scored a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $4.5 million, but posted just 37 points in 69 games and spent significant time on the Flyers’ fourth line.  34-year old Mike Ribeiro landed a four-year contract at $5.5 million per year, and rewarded the Phoenix Coyotes with 47 points in 80 games. Meanwhile, for $7.5 million in cap space, the Minnesota Wild got 56 points in 67 games out of Zach Parise in the second year of his 13-year,  $98 million contract. Richards’s point production falls somewhere between the players listed, but so does his cap hit.

The problem with Richards’s contract isn’t really the $6.6 million cap hit as much as it is the duration of the deal. In light of the very real possibility that his production will continue to decline, it’s hard to envision the Rangers choosing to keep Richards on the books for six more seasons. Worse yet, the Rangers would be subject to significant “cap recapture” penalties if Richards were to retire before the end of his contract:

 

The Rangers probably feel they are better served  spending their money on  allocating their cap space to one of several other players who are or may become available. As a result, Richards is almost certain to be bought out, and we can finally stop writing about the subject in this space! With or without Richards, the Rangers will need to make changes at the center position next season, which leads us to the next major area the Rangers are likely to address this off-season.

The Centers

The Rangers will look to upgrade at the center position this off-season in an effort to get more production out of their star right wingers Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis and budding speedsters Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin. That will require them to part ways with one or more of the three offensive-minded centers currently on their roster (i.e. Richards, Derek Stepan, and Derick Brassard).

If Richards is bought out (and perhaps if he isn’t), the Rangers could be significant players in the Paul Stastny sweepstakes. Stastny, 28, is arguably the top free agent forward available and has established himself as a very good (but not great) two way center in the NHL. Because of his age, ability, 2014 postseason production and the lack of centers available this off-season, Stastny will likely get a massive contract, perhaps for seven years at more than $7 million per season. This is a hefty price to pay for someone who is not quite an elite player in the league. The benefit of acquiring Stastny, though, is that he is a free agent and can be signed without giving up roster players and/or draft picks (which is particularly important since the Rangers surrendered their next two first round picks to acquire St. Louis). Someone will give Stastny that big contract, and it might just be Glen Sather. Buy out Richards; sign Stastny. It’s the simplest route to improving the team up the middle.

The Rangers could also look to explore the trade market to upgrade at center. The most likely trade target would appear to be Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks.  Near the trade deadline, it was widely reported that the Canucks wanted to part with the Michigan native, and that the Rangers were in hot pursuit.  Kesler wasn’t moved, and with new management in place, it is unclear whether the Canucks still want to move him. If so, he has the size and grit the Rangers covet, could improve the power play, is very good defensively, and has scored more than 20 goals in each of his last five full seasons (including a career high 41 goals in 2011-2012). Kesler will be 30 at the start of next season, but the Rangers would be more than willing to absorb the remaining two years on his contract which carries a cap hit of $5 million per season.

So the question becomes what would the Rangers have to give up in order to reunite Kesler with his former coach Alain Vigneault? The Canucks would likely want a roster player or top prospect, and one or more draft picks.  Would Carl Hagelin and a future second round pick be enough to get the deal done? Perhaps, particularly if Kesler utilizes his no-trade clause to dictate where he ends up.

Before making a deal for Kesler, the Rangers might first kick the tires on a potential trade for Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal. Conventional wisdom says the Hurricanes will look to sign Marc Staal away from the Rangers when his contract expires following the 2014-2015 season, thus reuniting him with his brothers Eric, Jordan and Jared. But back in March, Larry Brooks of the New York Post suggested that the Hurricanes might be willing to entertain trade offers for Eric as part of a teardown/rebuild.  As unlikely as that would seem given the commitment the Hurricanes recently made in trading for Jordan and signing him to a long-term contract extension, there is no doubt the Rangers would be interested in Eric if he were to become available.

Eric, remembered by Rangers fans as the guy who almost ended Marc’s career, is a dynamic player for whom the Hurricanes would demand a package comparable to if not greater than the one the Rangers surrendered for Nash in 2012. Like Kesler, the soon to be 30-year old is under contract for two more seasons, but Staal’s $8.25 million cap hit was the fifth highest in the league this year. Nonetheless, for Staal, the Rangers would trade almost anyone on the roster not named Lundvist, McDonagh or Kreider. Notably absent from that list of untouchables is Derek Stepan. At just 24 years old and under contract through next season, Stepan is among the Rangers’ most valuable commodities. It would be difficult to see Stepan go – particularly in light of his postseason heroics – but remember, Go For It Glen has proven time and time again he is heartless when it comes to trading players to whom fans feel emotionally attached. Would Stepan, J.T. Miller, and either Jesper Fast or a future first round pick be enough?

A much less expensive option might be Jason Spezza, who recently asked to be traded from the Ottawa Senators.  The 31-year old Spezza is a prototypical playmaking center who has been much maligned in Ottawa in recent years but has done nothing but produce.  Spezza has one year left on his deal that carries a $7 million cap hit. Spezza for J.T. Miller and a second round pick might work.

By the way, is it beyond the realm of possibility that Go For It Glen buys out Richards, signs Stastny, and attempts to execute a trade for one of the players identified above? Absolutely not, though it’s unlikely Sather will look to make such dramatic changes to a roster that came within three wins of the Stanley Cup. Plus, chances are Sather will need the extra cap space acquired from the Richards buyout to sign other free agents. Speaking of which…

The Rangers’ Free Agents

We’ll examine the unrestricted free agent pool in a moment, but before the Rangers can look into signing other teams’ players, they must first decide what to do with their own free agents.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final was the league-wide revelation of the sneaky-good Anton Stralman. Stralman is a right-handed defenseman who can contribute offensively and has improved dramatically as a defender in his time with the Rangers. At just 27 years old, Stralman is hitting the open market in his prime and at a time when right-handed defensemen are at a premium. By way of comparison, the Flyers recently signed 27-year old Andrew MacDonald to a six year, $30 million extension. Stralman will likely receive similar if not better offers on the open market.

Even assuming the Rangers could fit Stralman under the cap, it’s difficult to envision the Rangers paying him more than or even close to as much as their top pair defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan “Soon to Be Named Captain” McDonough. The Rangers acquired Kevin Klein earlier this season knowing that Stralman could bolt for greener pastures this off-season. If the Rangers don’t re-sign Stralman, they will likely pair Klein with Staal on their second defense pairing and look to fill out their third pair via unrestricted free agency. Raphael Diaz – who was adequate in his 15 games as a Ranger – is also an unrestricted free agent, but remains a possibility to backfill for Stralman.

Offensively, the Rangers have several unrestricted free agents including Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore. During the season, it seemed a near certainty that Boyle’s career as a Ranger would come to an end this off-season. But another strong postseason performance combined with his value as a penalty killer may have changed the Rangers’ thinking. Unfortunately for the Rangers, those same attributes will make Boyle attractive to other teams as well. If Boyle’s hometown Bruins were to come knocking, for example, it’s hard to imagine the Rangers engaging in a bidding war to retain the big center’s services.  As for Moore, after playing for 10 teams in nine years, he seems to have found a home with the team that selected him in the 2000 NHL draft. Like Boyle, Moore was a key penalty killer this season and elevated his game in the postseason. While he lacks Boyle’s size, he plays with grit and is more of a threat offensively.  That combined with the fact that he will likely cost less than Boyle makes it more likely than not that Moore will return.

The Rangers’ most consistent offensive line this season was made up of Derick Brassard in the middle, with Mats Zucarello and Benoit Pouliot on the wings. Brassard and Zucarello are restricted free agents, meaning the Rangers will have the right to match any offers they get from other teams. Pouliot, meanwhile, is set to become an unrestricted free agent, meaning he is free to sign anywhere he likes. The Rangers would probably like to keep this line together for another year, but that may prove difficult. Zuccarello earned $1.125 million this year, but had a breakout season, and likely will be seeking a deal worth more than $3.5 million per year. Brassard earned $3.2 million this season – which is probably fair market value – but will also seek a raise and is coming off his second straight strong postseason performance for the Rangers.

Assuming the Rangers commit an extra $3.5 million per year (total) between Brassard and Zuccarello, it’s hard to see them breaking the bank to sign Pouliot. If Pouliot is willing to accept a one or two year deal with an average annual value of $2 million or less, the band will be back together. If not, it will have been one and done for the trio.

The Rangers also have work to do in re-signing restricted free agents John Moore and Chris Kreider, but neither player has arbitration rights and both are likely to receive two-year “bridge” deals.

Other Free Agents

This year’s crop of unrestricted free agents became far less desirable when Evgeni Malkin and Patrice Bergeron signed long-term contract extensions early in the 2013-2014 season. Nonetheless, the Rangers will be able to find depth and toughness on the open market.

With Dan Carcillo’s career as a Ranger likely over, the Rangers may look to add a veteran with size, toughness and playoff experience. Former Bruin Shawn Thornton would fit the bill, but the Rangers will be wary of giving him a multiyear contract having been burned by signing veteran pugilists to such deals in the past. A two-year $2 million deal might be acceptable to both sides, but Thornton might find better offers elsewhere.

Other players in whom the Rangers might be interested include disastrous-Rangers-first-round-pick-turned-solid-NHL-player-and-possible-Brian-Boyle-replacement Manny Malholtra, noted agitator Steve Ott, versatile tough guy Zenon Konopka, talented center Mikhail Grabovski, Stanley Cup champion (and right-handed defenseman) Matt Greene, tough-as-nails Zack Stortini, and former Ranger Scott Gomez (just kidding).

Predictions

After a few days of mourning, the Rangers’ quest to return to the Stanley Cup Final begins in earnest next week. For the reasons described above, here are my official 2014 off-season predictions:

  1. Brad Richards gets bought out.
  2. The Rangers trade for Ryan Kesler or Jason Spezza.
  3. The Rangers re-sign Dominic Moore, Mats Zuccarello, John Moore, and Chris Kreider.
  4. Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle sign elsewhere.
  5. The Rangers sign Shawn Thornton and/or Manny Malholtra.

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and is counting down the days until training camp begins.