By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers made a low-risk, potentially high-reward move on Wednesday.
After numerous reports swirled on the Fourth of July saying the Blueshirts had come to terms with veteran center David Desharnais on a one-year, $1 million contract, the team officially announced the deal on Wednesday.
Desharnias will be looking to rebound from three consecutive seasons of declining production. The Rangers are banking on the former 60-point man’s resurgence in head coach Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system.
During his career season in 2011-12 with the Montreal Canadiens, Desharnais, who will turn 31 on Sept. 14, averaged 18:24 of ice time per night. He had been a 16-minute-plus skater for the previous five seasons before his game tailed off last season, eventually leading to his trade to the Edmonton Oilers in February.
While Desharnais is not expected to fill the No. 2 center spot that opened when the Rangers traded Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes last month, he will almost certainly be counted on in a bottom-six role.
Though his points per game has slid in recent years, it should be noted that Desharnais has posted 0.50 or better in five of his last seven seasons. His signing appears to be a move similar to when the Rangers brought back then-33-year-old Dominic Moore prior to the 2013-14 campaign on an identical contract.
The upcoming season will be a show-me stage for Desharnais. His stock has dipped in recent years and a strong 2017-18 showing on Madison Square Garden ice could put him in line for a considerable raise next summer.
Desharnais’ best attributes are his high work ethic, puck control in tight areas, and prowess at the face-off dot. The 5-foot-7 center could fill a valuable need as a defensive zone specialist. In split duty with the Canadiens and Oilers last season, Desharnais won 51.1 percent (45-for-88) of defensive zone draws. Overall, he won 51.2 percent of face-offs.
Mika Zibanejad is locked in to the No. 1 center slot and full-time center Kevin Hayes is next on the depth chart. The Rangers have plenty of options for the third and fourth lines, including the possibility that they move J.T. Miller back to center on a full-time basis. Miller’s year-by-year improvement on the defensive side of the puck makes him a realistic option. Should that happen, Zibanejad-Hayes-Miller-Desharnais sounds like a solid center foursome to open the regular season, with Desharnais potentially thriving in favorable fourth-line matchups.
If Miller is kept on the wing and no other center acquisitions are made, the Rangers would enter the preseason with Desharnais as the favorite to win the third-line role. Rookie Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, Lias Andersson, the No. 7 overall pick in last month’s draft, and, possibly, Matt Puempel would figure into the competition for the final pivot spot.
It’s clear that Desharnais is a better hockey player than the one who averaged 0.29 points per game last season. How much closer can he get to producing like his did during his best years in Montreal? Vigneault, the coaching staff, and his new teammates will try to find the answer. He was one of the Canadiens’ most effective skaters against the Rangers in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.
FAST AGREES NEW DEAL
The Rangers also announced on Wednesday that 25-year-old winger Jesper Fast has agreed to a three-year, $5.55 million contract. At an average-annual value of $1.85 million, that’s money well-spent for a player Vigneault trusts in roles from the second line down and deploys for heavy short-handed minutes. The hard-working Swede was named by teammates as Players’ Player Award winner in consecutive seasons. He recorded six points in 12 games during the 2016-17 playoffs.
ZIBANEJAD FILES FOR ARBITRATION
On Wednesday night, the NHLPA released its list of 30 players that have elected for salary arbitration. Though Zibanejad filed, he will have the opportunity to negotiate a new contract and avoid a hearing. Salary arbitration hearings will be held in Toronto from July 20 to Aug. 4.
The last Ranger to go through salary arbitration was Nikolai Zherdev back in 2009. The Ukrainian-Russian winger was awarded a $3.9 million salary, but the Rangers opted to walk away from the judgment. Zherdev became an unrestricted free agent and eventually signed with Atlant Moscow Oblast of the KHL. He had been offered $3.25 million from the Rangers as a restricted free agent.
The Zherdev case is rare. In many cases, agreements are struck as the hours tick down to scheduled hearings.
Don’t sweat the Zibanejad situation, Rangers fans.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey