The New York Rangers are open for business.
Just because Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner and others were traded away over the past 12 months, that does not mean Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton is finished making over the club’s roster and organizational depth chart. In fact, he’s likely just entering the second phase after declaring a rebuild necessary in February.
While Gorton restocked the coffers with a group of intriguing prospects in a variety of trades and recent draft selections, he still must ice a competitive team this fall. After all, these are the New York Rangers, and with plenty of salary cap space, young talent and 2018 draft picks at his disposal, Gorton has quite a few chips to fairly quickly rebuild his team.
2018 UFA RANKINGS: Forwards | Defensemen | Goalies
It will be a balancing act, though. The Rangers are committed to working in as many talented youngsters as possible this season, but how many roster spots will be taken by more experienced players?
Only time will tell, but this is an intriguing and exciting time for the Rangers and their fans.
Rangers’ offseason to-do list
1. Decide the fate of numerous RFAs
The Rangers have to make decisions on five of their own restricted free agents this summer: forwards Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, Vlad Namestnikov and Ryan Spooner, and defenseman Brady Skjei. That number climbs to eight when we add fringe NHLers Boo Nieves, Rob O’Gara and John Gilmour.
Hayes, Namestnikov and Skjei seem to be candidates for longer-term contracts, though Skjei could be looking at a bridge deal instead. Either way, there are hard decisions to make on committing to all three as core players longer term, and even more so with Spooner and Vesey, both of whom have disappointed to varying degrees in their young careers.
Trade rumors have swirled around Hayes, Spooner and Namestnikov, and the bet here is one of those three will be moved. Spooner — who has the least value — could be the one the Rangers choose not to re-sign. Skjei is likely a keeper, perhaps the heir apparent to McDonagh as the minute-muncher on the back end. The Rangers seem bent on giving Vesey a bridge deal to see if he can be more than he was his first two years in the league.
It has taken Nieves quite some time to develop, but he was decent as a fourth-line center when called up last season. Re-signing him would not cost much, either. Gilmour is the better option on defense than O’Gara, though the latter was part of the Nick Holden trade with Boston, so he might be given a longer leash.
Plenty of decisions to make here.
2. Fill out David Quinn’s coaching staff
The No. 1 item on the Rangers’ to-do list in April was to find a new head coach to replace the fired Alain Vigneault. Gorton crossed that one off his list by hiring former Boston University bench boss David Quinn — a bold hire aimed directly at better developing the young NHLers and prospects within the organization.
Now the Rangers need to fill out Quinn’s coaching staff.
It appears longtime NHL head coach Lindy Ruff — an assistant under Vigneault last season — will remain with the Rangers in some capacity, providing Quinn with an experienced sounding board. That is a great start. Benoit Allaire remains as goaltending coach. That’s an even better start. It will be intriguing to see if the other assistants have ties to Quinn — perhaps from the college level or even Joe Sacco, under whom Quinn was an assistant in Colorado — or are veteran NHL coaches — think Rick Bowness — or a combination thereof.
3. Find a suitable goalie to back up Henrik Lundqvist
Lundqvist will turn 37 in March, but he remains the Rangers’ No. 1 goaltender. While he still flashes some of his prior brilliance, his game is more inconsistent now and he has become more susceptible to injury the past couple of years. Having a quality backup is imperative to maximize Lundqvist and the team.
Ondrej Pavelec did a decent job in that role last season before he was beset by injury. He is a free agent unlikely to return. Alexander Georgiev, a 22-year-old Russian, played surprisingly well in 10 NHL games, posting a .918 save percentage. The club’s top goalie prospect, Igor Shesterkin, is under contract in the KHL.
Look for Gorton to try to land a veteran who can start 25 or so games next season and give Georgiev an extended run as a No. 1 in the AHL. Carter Hutton is an intriguing option, as are Anton Khudobin, Jaroslav Halak and Jonathan Bernier.
NHL DRAFT 2018: SN’s Mock 3.0 | Prospect rankings
Rangers 2018 draft preview
Draft picks: Ninth overall, 26th overall, 28th overall, 39th overall, 48th overall, 70th overall, 88th overall, 101st overall, 132nd overall, 163rd overall.
One way or the other, the Rangers are going to be super-busy and fun to watch this weekend in Dallas. The Blueshirts own three first-round selections and five picks in the top 50. They also have seven selections in the first three rounds and 10 overall.
Either the Rangers will use all of their picks and bolster their growing prospect pool, or they’ll use some picks as assets to trade up in the draft or acquire players who can help the club more immediately. There are several high-end defensemen projected to go in the first round; expect the Rangers to make the blue line a positional target.
The Rangers have restocked their prospect group in the past year, starting with centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, their first-round selections in the 2017 draft. Defensemen Ryan Lindgren, Libor Hajek and Igor Rykov were added to a pool of blueliners that already included Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk and Sean Day. Brett Howden has joined the organization’s forwards group, while Andersson and Chytil will vie for full-time NHL jobs as 19-year-olds in the fall. Shesterkin is the goalie to watch, though he cannot come to North America until after the 2018-19 season.
MORE: Biggest sleepers, risers and fallers to watch in 2018 NHL Draft
Rangers free agent/trade targets
Oh, to climb inside Gorton’s head and know the real answers.
For now, he’s saying he’s open to all possibilities, so don’t rule out a trade of Namestnikov or Hayes, for example, or being in the mix for a higher-end free agent.
Let’s hope the plan doesn’t involve bringing back Nash or Grabner. Been there, done that, move on.
Go ahead and find out what it would take to land the two-time Norris Trophy winner and 2019 unrestricted free agent, should the Senators not be able to re-sign him. The Rangers have the picks, prospects and young NHL talent to pull off a trade. They also have the money to sign Karlsson ahead of his UFA opportunity. You better believe Karlsson would be re-energized playing on Broadway. He’s an All-Star with superstar talent, name value and captain potential. What do ya say, New York? Can’t hurt to be in on him if he’s in play.
There might be a fit here should the Canadiens look to move their captain a year ahead of him reaching UFA status and as he comes off a disappointing 17-goal season. Pacioretty owns a modest $4.5 million cap hit, is a four-time 30-plus goal scorer, is only 29 and is a Connecticut native who more than likely would welcome a deal out of Montreal and close to home. The Habs need help down the middle, and the Rangers can deal from their depth, even if that means a younger, controllable asset like Hayes or Namestnikov is the cost.
Carter Hutton/Jonathan Bernier
Philipp Grubauer is the top goalie on the (trade) market, but the Rangers won’t be in on him. Hutton and Bernier are two solid backup candidates coming off good seasons — and in Hutton’s case, a career-best one. Bernier is younger at 29, but Hutton, 32, is more desirable. The issue could be term. With Shesterkin on the horizon, the Rangers likely don’t want to go more than two years on whoever they bring in to back up Lundqvist.