Projecting the Rangers’ Opening Night Roster

By: Michael Abitabilo

Earlier today, the Rangers announced they have cut nine players from their training camp roster, leaving 34 players left in camp. With the season opener just over a week away, the Rangers’ roster is beginning to shape up. But the injury to Derek Stepan combined with the impressive play of several Rangers’ prospects has created intrigue as to who will be on the roster on October 9th when the Rangers take on the St. Louis Blues.

The Rangers can carry up to 23 players. If Derek Stepan placed on injured reserve, he won’t count towards the 23, i.e. they could carry up to 24 including Stepan (though salary cap considerations might make that difficult, but more on that later). The first nine spots will be taken by the goaltenders and defensemen.

Goaltenders:

1. Henrik Lundqvist

2. Cam Talbot

In terms of roster spots, the Rangers are more or less set on defense. Their top six is clear, and while we do not know who will earn the seventh spot (probably Mike Kostka or Dylan McIlrath), there is almost no chance they will carry eight defensemen to start the season.

Defenseman:

3. Ryan McDonagh

4. Dan Girardi

5. Marc Staal

6. Dan Boyle

7. John Moore

8. Kevin Klein

9. Seventh Defenseman

So that means there will be either 14 or 15 spots for forwards (of which only 12 will dress per game). Including Stepan, the Rangers have nine forwards who can be considered to be locks to be on the opening day roster. No substantive discussion regarding these players is warranted.

Locks:

1. Rick Nash

2. Martin St. Louis

3. Derek Stepan

4. Chris Kreider

5. Derick Brassard

6. Mats Zuccarello

7. Carl Hagelin

8. Dominic Moore

9. Tanner Glass

After these nine is where things start to get tricky. There are probably four more players who are really, really close to being locks.

Close to Locks:

10. Ryan Malone – The Rangers undoubtedly want to take advantage of Malone’s experience, size, and power play prowess. The main reason that Malone is almost certain to remain on the roster is that he would have to pass through waivers before being assigned to the Hartford Wolfpack of the AHL, meaning any team in the league could acquire him in exchange for nothing. The only factor preventing him from being considered a lock is that he was arrested last season for cocaine possession  suffered a groin injury this preseason that has limited him to just one preseason game. If he were to aggravate the injury before the season starts, the Rangers might take their chances and try to stash him in Hartford until he is physically ready to play.

11. J.T. Miller – Unlike Malone, Miller can be sent to the minors without being placed on waivers, so in theory he could be a candidate to start the season in the AHL. But his NHL experience and strong play this preseason, combined with the fact that he is a natural center iceman, all but guarantees he starts the season with the big club.

12. Matthew Lombardi – Lombardi certainly hasn’t played his way onto the “Close to Locks” list. Like Malone, Lombardi suffered an injury in training camp and has been unable to play. Add to that the fact that he has not played in the NHL since two seasons ago, and it’s certainly fair to question his spot on the team. But the fact that he plays center and would have to pass through waivers before going to the minors leads me to believe his spot on the roster is safe (for now).

13. Lee Stempniak – Like Malone and Lombardi, Stempniak is a veteran player who would have to pass through waivers before being assigned to the AHL. He hasn’t stood out in the preseason, but does have a proven track record in the NHL (150 goals and 191 assists in 637 career games). While I believe Stempniak will be on the opening day roster, I’d be surprised if he finishes the season with the Rangers. Both he and Lombardi are players who could eventually lose their roster spots to young players who force their way onto the team.

So, if you buy that these 13 forwards are going to be on the opening night roster – which is no sure thing – the question becomes which one or two of the players below will make the team.

Fighting For a Spot:

14. Kevin Hayes – I previously wrote how the Stepan injury made it more likely than not that Hayes would start the season with the Rangers. Nothing he has done (or hasn’t done) this preseason has changed my opinion. While Hayes has seemed a step slow at times, he has found a way to make plays and his positional versatility makes him an asset.

15. Anthony Duclair – ALL ABOARRDDDDDDDD! Oh sorry that was just me calling all comers for the Anthony Duclair Bandwagon. This kid is lightning. Skates like lightning. Shoots like lightning. Stole my heart like lightning. Duclair’s biggest obstacle? Junior eligibility. Because of his age (19) and lack of professional experience, Duclair remains eligible to play major junior hockey. But the focus of this piece is who will be on the roster on opening night, and Duclair can play up to ten NHL games without affecting his junior eligibility. The Rangers will be searching for offense while Stepan recovers from his injury and Duclair leads the Rangers in goals this preseason. Barring any significant drop in his play over the last few preseason games, I have a sneaking suspicion Duclair will be on the team come opening night.

16. Ryan Haggerty – Haggerty hadn’t done much to warrant attention this preseason until he scored two highlight reel goals at Madison Square Garden against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday night. I still think he’s behind Hayes, Duclair and possibly Jesper Fast, but if he plays well enough in the final two preseason games he could push his way onto the roster.

17. Jesper Fast – Fast is sort of a victim of his own stability. He doesn’t stand out offensively, which is bad, nor is he a liability defensively, which is good. He has had a productive preseason and – like Hayes – can play center. Like most of the other prospects in camp, Fast can be assigned to the AHL without passing through waivers.

18. Chris Mueller – Mueller is an interesting case. He’s the only player in this category who must pass through waivers before being sent to the minors. He’s also the only player in this category who is right-handed, and has shown some offensive potential in the preseason. The Rangers must decide if they value him enough that they do not want to risk losing him via the waiver wire. But the reality is that Mueller is 28 and has spent the majority of his career in the minors, and so chances are he would clear waivers. I do not believe he will be on the opening night roster.

So, to boil down this final group, it would seem that the Rangers’ need at center would mean they will choose between Hayes and Fast, and that if they choose to keep a 15th forward it would be either Duclair or Haggerty. But, according to the tremendously awesome capgeek.com, keeping McIlrath as a seventh defenseman and either Hayes or Fast would actually put the Rangers slightly above the salary cap, and would thus prevent them from keeping a 15th forward:

FORWARDS
Rick Nash ($7.800m) / Derick Brassard ($5.000m) / Martin St. Louis ($5.625m)
Mats Zuccarello ($3.500m) / J.T. Miller ($0.894m) / Carl Hagelin ($2.250m)
Chris Kreider ($2.475m) / Dominic Moore ($1.500m) / Ryan Malone ($0.700m)
Lee Stempniak ($0.900m) / Kevin Hayes ($0.900m) / Tanner Glass ($1.450m)
Derek Stepan ($3.075m) / Matthew Lombardi ($0.800m)
DEFENSEMEN
Dan Girardi ($5.500m) / Ryan McDonagh ($4.700m)
Dan Boyle ($4.500m) / Marc Staal ($3.975m)
Kevin Klein ($2.900m) / John Moore ($0.851m)
Dylan McIlrath ($0.703m) /
GOALTENDERS
Henrik Lundqvist ($8.500m)
Cameron Talbot ($0.563m)

——
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS 
(estimations for 2014-15)
SALARY CAP: $69,000,000; CAP PAYROLL: $69,060,500; BONUSES: $3,791,667
CAP SPACE (23-man roster): -$60,500

But all is not lost for the Duclair-a-maniacs among us. With Stepan likely to miss more than 10 games, the Rangers can place him on Long Term Inured Reserve (LTIR), and obtain several million dollars in salary cap relief until such time as he can return to the lineup. Indeed, placing Stepan on LTIR to start the season would allow the Rangers to keep Hayes or Fast and Duclair or Haggerty and assemble a cap-compliant roster.

Of course, there are an infinite number of roster variations the Rangers might consider. But in light of the team’s needs and its players’ preseason performance, I believe your opening night roster will be as follows:

Goaltenders (2):

1. Henrik Lundqvist

2. Cam Talbot

Defensemen (7):

3. Ryan McDonagh

4. Dan Girardi

5. Marc Staal

6. Dan Boyle

7. John Moore

8. Kevin Klein

9. Dylan McIlrath

Forwards (14 + 1 LTIR):

10. Rick Nash

11. Martin St. Louis

12. Derek Stepan (LTIR)

13. Chris Kreider

14. Derick Brassard

15. Mats Zucarello

16. Carl Hagelin

17. Dominic Moore

18. Tanner Glass

19. Ryan Malone

20. J.T. Miller

21. Matthew Lombardi

22. Lee Stempniak

23. Kevin Hayes

24. Anthony Duclair

Ladies and gentlemen: your 2014-2015 Stanley Cup Champions!

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and believes he was the first to predict that Ryan McDonagh will be wearing the “C” to start the 2014-2015 season.