By Sean Hartnett
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Suddenly, the Rangers’ salary cap crunch may be alleviated due to multiple factors.
The Blueshrits will save roughly $2.9 million against the cap next season through buying out veteran defenseman Dan Girardi. Last Tuesday, the New York Post reported that 32-year-old defenseman Kevin Klein is leaning toward retiring from the NHL to continue his career in Europe. Should Klein opt to retire, the Rangers would suddenly gain an additional $2.9 million in cap space.
What the Rangers need to take the next step toward Stanley Cup contention is a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who is the opposite of the possession-deficient player Girardi became toward the end of his 11-year run with the team. The kind of defenseman who fits the bill is 28-year-old offense-generator Kevin Shattenkirk. That potential $5.8 million in freed up cap space sure will come in handy for the Blueshirts once the free agency signing period begins on July 1.
Signing Shattenkirk will be an expensive commitment in both annual dollars and term. He will be the most coveted star of the 2017 free agent class and will likely command seven-year offers near an annual cap hit of $6.5 million. But the New Rochelle native ticks all the boxes for the blue line makeover the Rangers need after they were unable to establish deep playoff runs in each of the past two seasons.
The Rangers finished the 2017 playoffs with a dismal 7.7 power play percentage. Only the Shattenkirk-less St. Louis Blues finished with a worse conversation rate.
After splitting time with the Blues and Washington Capitals, Shattenkirk finished the regular season tied for eighth in the NHL with 27 power play points. Among defensemen, only the Tampa Bay Lighting’s Victor Hedman finished with more power play points (33). Shattenkirk finished even with two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens was the only defenseman able to score more power play goals (12) than Shattenkirk’s eight.
Over the past five seasons, only Karlsson has recorded more power play points (118) than Shattenkirk’s 113.
What the Blueshirts desperately need on the power play is crisp puck movement. Their power play became stagnant and muddled this past postseason after finishing tied for 10th overall during the regular season (20.2 percent success rate). It can sorely use Shattenkirk’s fast legs and quick decisions. Few are better at supplying excellent breakout passes and setting up teammates for one-timers.
In five-on-five situations, the Rangers trended in recent seasons as a team that spent far too much time putting out fires in its own end. Injuries piled up by the aging trio of Girardi, Klein and Marc Staal led to the Rangers being less effective at escaping their own end.
Shattenkirk would bring a much-needed “attack from the back” mindset back to the Rangers that hasn’t been around since Keith Yandle donned the team’s sweater and served as a game-changer with his explosive skating and excellent instincts. Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei are terrific skaters and far more complete defensemen compared to the likes of Shattenkirk and Yandle, but neither initiates the attack in the way that a Shattenkirk or Yandle can.
Yandle was often misused on the third pairing and second power play unit by head coach Alain Vigneault during his one-and-a-half year spell in New York. If the Rangers end up committing mega money to Shattenkirk, Vigneault must tolerate the occasional risk that comes with the skilled right-hander’s style of play.
Shattenkirk recorded 0.70 points per game this past regular season season, finishing the campaign with 13 goals and 43 assists in 80 games. He has become a more accurate shooter in recent seasons, finishing with a 7.8 percentage in 2015-16 and went 8.1 in 2016-17 after hovering between 4.9 and 6.0 percent over his previous five seasons.
The possibility of re-signing Brendan Smith would be a nice, solidifying move for the Rangers. He’s a versatile defenseman who brings a good mix of aggression and poise. The 28-year-old left-hander put in strong performances throughout his first playoffs with the Blueshirts. But delivering Shattenkirk on the first day of free agency must be priority No. 1 for the Rangers, who hope to accomplish their Stanley Cup dream while franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still at the top of his game.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey