‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The New York Rangers took their fans on an incredible ride that was equally unexpected and unforgettable. There won’t be a ticker-tape parade down the “Canyon of Heroes” to commemorate the 2013-14 Rangers, but this heart-and-soul group will be remembered fondly for years to come.
The 2013-14 team was made up of a collection of truly special individuals that made the hearts of New Yorkers swell with pride. The courageous human-interest stories of Dominic Moore and Martin St. Louis captured the heartstrings of this city. All-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist summoned his most intense focus when the Rangers desperately needed him to deliver in the most pressured situations. The Rangers were out-shot 61 to 25 during third periods during the Stanley Cup Final. Lundqvist fought tooth and nail to keep the Rangers’ hopes alive, but his teammates could not muster enough offense to take advantage of his sensational 48-save Game 5 performance.
Alain Vigneault and his men saw their dream come to a cruel end in Los Angeles, losing on Friday night in double overtime. It was not due to a lack of effort. The Rangers emptied their tanks every night, but the physically dominant Kings are fully deserving of their second Stanley Cup crown in three years.
The page immediately turns to preparations for 2014-15. On Monday morning, the Rangers will meet the media for one last time before they break for the offseason. Much focus is surrounding the future of alternate captain Brad Richards, as the organization holds a final compliance buyout option that will disappear if it is not exercised before 5 p.m. on June 30.
In addition to deciding the future of Richards, Rangers general manager Glen Sather has of a number of key offseason tasks to address. Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Moore, Raphael Diaz and Dan Carcillo will become unrestricted free agents if they are not re-signed prior to July 1. Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and John Moore are among restricted free agents seeking raises. Signing veteran defenseman Marc Staal to a long-term extension remains one of Sather’s most important offseason priorities.
WHICH UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS ARE LIKELY TO STAY?
Checking line forwards Boyle and Moore appear very comfortable in New York. It would be difficult to imagine either signing on elsewhere, though both of these penalty killing, faceoff experts would stand to command higher salaries on the open market.
Boyle made $1.8 million ($1.7 million cap hit) in 2013-14. He could be seeking a multi-year contract near $2.5 million in annual average value. Should Boyle’s asking price swell closer to $3 million, it will be difficult for the Rangers to retain the services of the popular teammate and clutch playoff goal-getter.
Expect Moore to sign a one-year deal above the $1 million he earned in 2013-14. He was a bargain signing for the Rangers this past season and replaced Richards on the second line during the final games of the Stanley Cup Final.
Pouliot has become a wanderer, playing for four different organizations in the past five seasons. After years of struggling with consistency, Pouliot has finally found a home in New York. The 27-year-old winger formed a dynamic partnership with line-mates Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. It was the Rangers’ most dominant line from Christmas through the finals.
Pouliot is set to receive a substantial raise above the $1.3 million he earned this season. He will be looking for stability given his journeyman career. He’s in a good place in New York and will want to remain a Ranger. Unless another team’s offer blows the Rangers out of the water, expect Pouliot to tie his future to the Blueshirts.
I think restricted free agents Zuccarello, Brassard, Kreider and Moore will all re-sign during the offseason, though these will be long, drawn-out negotiations.
WHO WON’T BE A RANGER WHEN NEXT SEASON BEGINS?
The compliance buyout period opens on Monday. The Rangers have between Monday and 5 p.m. on June 30 to decide whether to exercise it on Richards.
According to Capgeek.com, the Rangers have roughly $53.9 million committed in cap payroll to 13 players for next season, including Richards. If the Rangers use their final compliance buyout on Richards’ $6.67 million cap hit, that number would shrink to about $47.23 million. The 2014-15 NHL salary cap is projected to be $70.5 million. This leaves just over $23 million to re-sign current players and sign free agents.
The decision to buy out Richards appears to be a straightforward one. At 34, Richards’ skating ability and production has regressed with age. He is no longer a 70-point player, and the Rangers would face stiff cap recapture penalties should Richards suffer a career-ending injury or retire within the frame of his current contract that runs through the 2019-20 season. There’s a 99.9 percent chance that Richards will be bought out before June 30.
Stralman was the Rangers’ most consistent defenseman during the playoffs. The prized 27-year-old earned $1.8 million ($1.7 million cap hit) in 2013-14. Expect him to seek a four-year contract in excess of $4 million in average annual value. He is a stabile, puck-moving, right-handed defenseman capable of being a first pairing and playing in all situations.
Considering the number of teams wishing to sign Stralman, it’s possible that he could receive offers above $4.5 million per year. This will make it impossible for the Rangers to re-sign Stralman. It’s going to be very difficult to replace his game-to-game reliability.
Unrestricted free agents Carcillo and Diaz are unlikely to remain with the Rangers. Carcillo has reputation for earning suspensions and a history of knee injuries. He was only brought in as a rent-a-player, and agitating wingers are abundant in the NHL. In a perfect world, the Rangers would be able to keep the 28-year-old Diaz around to compete with youthful defenseman for spots in training camp. Spare defenseman Justin Falk played 21 games, but was rarely used after December. The 25-year-old is a restricted free agent is not expected to be re-signed.
STASTNY WILL BE RANGERS’ NO. 1 TARGET SHOULD HE HIT FREE AGENCY
The Colorado Avalanche are in a tough situation with 28-year-old center Paul Stastny. According to Adrian Dater of the Denver Post, Stastny’s representatives will hold off negotiations until June 20. NHL teams are allowed to speak with potential free agents from June 25-30 before free agency officially begins on July 1.
Stastny recorded 25 goals and 35 assists in 71 games. He earned an average of $6.6 million over his past five years with the Avalanche. Stastny is recognized as a talented two-way player, blessed with strength and play-making acumen.
As a strong possession player, Stastny would fit right into Vigneault’s system. Should he hit the open market, Stastny will be the most coveted free agent and the Rangers would present him with a win-now opportunity. Their main bidding rivals are likely to be the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
Following the June 11 general managers meetings in New York, Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray confirmed that captain and center Jason Spezza has requested a trade.
“I don’t want to trade the guy, really, and I know I won’t get the value, in all likelihood that I should get for him,” Murray said. “But I think that Jason feels maybe there’s a change that he would like to have happen. If that’s the case, we’ll try to do what we can.”
Murray went on to say that he would prefer to “send him somewhere we don’t have to play him every night.”
Spezza scored 66 in 75 games this past season. He is entering the final year of a seven-year contract. His cap hit is $7 million. The 31-year-old would appeal to the Rangers because of his play-making ability, and because he is right-handed. Derek Stepan is the Rangers’ only right-handed centerman.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, it appears that Murray’s desire is to send Spezza to a Western Conference team.
Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal’s name has emerged in a number of trade rumors. Hurricanes GM Ron Francis said during a May interview with CBC’s Elliotte Friedman that keeping Staal “depends on our budget.”
The price to acquire Staal is steep, and Sather probably does not want to part with the pieces needed to united Eric with his brother Marc in New York. His contract also might be too expensive to fit under the Rangers’ cap budget. Staal has two-years remaining on his current deal worth $8.25 million in annual average value.
YOUNGSTERS READY TO MAKE THE JUMP TO THE NHL
Should the Rangers lose Stralman via free agency, two in-house options are considered ready to make the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis. Left-handed defenseman Conor Allen and right-handed defenseman Dylan McIlrath both had brief NHL auditions during the 2013-14 season.
Allen impressed during a three-game stint with the Rangers during the end of December that stretched to January 3. The 24-year-old isn’t a natural point-getter, but he’s reliable, physical and a good skater with solid puck-moving skills.
Nicknamed “The Undertaker” due to his fighting prowess, 22-year-old McIlrath has battled knee injuries throughout his young career. McIlrath was able to prove his durability by playing in 62 games for the Hartford Wolf Pack and played two games for the Rangers. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman isn’t the most athletic skater. McIlrath has the potential to be a shutdown defenseman, but will have to prove that he can move quick enough to fit into Vigneault’s uptempo system.
Jesper Fast seems to be a youngster that has earned Vigneault’s admiration.
“I like his hockey sense, his speed, his willingness to play at both ends of the rink,” Vigneault said of Fast in April.
The 22-year-old winger notched 34 points in 48 games for the Wolf Pack. Fast did not score a point in any of his 11 regular season appearances. He earned his first career NHL playoff point against the Philadelphia Flyers on April 17. Fast finished the playoffs with one assist in three games. As his name suggests, Fast is a speed burner and has terrific hands.
Winger Danny Kristo will turn 24 on June 18. Kristo struggled with consistency in his first year with the Wolf Pack following a summer swap that sent Rangers prospect Christian Thomas to the Montreal Canadiens. Like Fast, Kristo is an excellent skater – but he has a lot to prove.
PROJECTED 2014-15 OPENING NIGHT LINEUP
McDonagh ( C ) – Girardi ( A )
Staal ( A ) -Klein
MCDONAGH IN LINE TO BE NEXT CAPTAIN
At some point before training camp, the Rangers are expected to name 25-year-old defenseman Ryan McDonagh as their 27th captain in franchise history. A number of teammates including Rick Nash and Derick Brassard have endorsed McDonagh as next captain of the Blueshirts.
In addition to being a growing, all-situation defenseman, McDonagh is a character who is mature beyond his years. McDonagh will have benefited from having studied current letter-wearing veterans Richards, Staal, Dan Girardi and former captain Ryan Callahan. He will also lean on the wisdom of respected leader St. Louis, who will turn 39 on June 18.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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