‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Aside from signing veteran defenseman Dan Boyle to quarterback the power play, Rangers general manager Glen Sather has spent much of the offseason perusing bargain bins for low-cost, potentially high-rewarding free agents.
On Saturday, the Rangers announced the signing of 31-year-old winger Lee Stempniak. At a reported one year and $900,000, Sather might have again struck gold. Stempniak scored 12 goals and registered 22 assists for 34 points in combined duty with the Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
Last summer, Sather signed Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot to one-year deals for a collective $2.3 million. Moore and Pouliot each played key roles in propelling the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years. The notoriously streaky Pouliot shined brightly throughout his lone season with the Blueshirts. He fit in well with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello on what became Rangers’ most consistent forward line. Moore provided top-notch penalty killing, faceoff expertise, vigorous energy and proficient instinctual play in all three zones.
While the Rangers were able to retain Moore at a cap-friendly, one-year, $1.5 million contract, the highly-coveted Pouliot went on to sign a massive five-year, $20 million contract with the ambitious Edmonton Oilers. That sizable raise was obviously too rich for the cap-conscious Rangers.
Stempniak’s versatility could prove to be an asset for a team that is reshuffling. He has the ability to play either wing and is an all-situation player capable of logging impressive minutes. Prior to his trade deadline arrival in Pittsburgh, Stempniak averaged 19:24 time on ice per game in his final season with the Flames.
The salary cap squeeze has not been kind to the Blueshirts, who have lost three notable forwards this offseason — Pouliot, veteran Brad Richards and penalty-killing ace Brian Boyle.
Stempniak has scored 38 points or better in five of nine NHL seasons. He packs a sneaky wrist shot and is capable of playing the point on the power play.
The jury is out on whether oft-injured center Matthew Lombardi has the ability to be another shrewd Sather signing. A history of concussions forced the 32-year-old Lombardi to find work outside of the NHL last season. Lombardi spent the entire 2013-14 season playing for Geneve-Servette of the Swiss National A-League, where he led all players with 50 points in 46 regular season games.
The Rangers struck a two-year, $1.6 million pact with Lombardi. It’s certainly an intriguing decision given his well-documented health concerns.
Should Lombardi prove his durability, both he and Stempniak possess the kind of speed that meshes well with the up-tempo approach favored by Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault.
In addition, the Rangers signed rugged winger Tanner Glass to a three-year, $4.35 million contract earlier this summer. Glass is coming off a rough final season with the Penguins. The 30-year-old winger lacks offensive skill and compiled poor possession numbers in 2013-14.
It was a curious decision by Sather to cast off Derek Dorsett to the Vancouver Canucks for a third-round pick prior to the draft. Dorsett was a terrific fit on the Rangers’ fourth line alongside Dom Moore.
The three-year commitment is a real head-scratcher given Glass’s recent struggles. That faith is mostly due to Vigneault’s confidence in Glass. Vigneault coached Glass in Vancouver for two seasons and during a July 2 conference call praised his abilities.
“Tanner is a hard-nosed fourth-line player that can kill penalties,” Vigneault said. “Smart player and will help us in that role.”
Vigneault went on to describe Glass as a player who would bring an “edge” to the Blueshirts.
“Our whole staff of coaches and scouts and management thought that he would bring an edge to our team that we need,” Vigneault said. “He would bring some ‘PK.’ He has improved since I had him, and I think we are getting a real solid player there.”
Glass has a familiarity with Stempniak from the two seasons they spent together at Dartmouth College.
ARBITRATION DATES UPCOMING FOR KREIDER, BRASSARD AND ZUCCARELLO
As things currently stand, the Rangers have roughly $12.3 million in remaining cap space to allocate toward resigning restricted free agents Brassard, Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and John Moore.
Zuccarello and Kreider’s arbitration cases are scheduled for this week. Kreider’s hearing is set for Wednesday, July 23. Zuccarello’s case is scheduled for Friday and Brassard’s hearing would come next Monday. Moore is not arbitration eligible.
It is in the best interest of both the Rangers and their RFA’s to agree to new deals without the having to go through the painful process of arbitration. This tends to be a nasty time as teams and players go to war. NHL teams tend to have a particular distaste for arbitration as it inflates salaries. For players, it can be hurtful to hear arguments designed to discredit players and limit their earning power.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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