By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers wingers Mats Zuccarello and Martin St. Louis have blown hot and cold throughout the 2014-15 regular season. Both are pending unrestricted free agents and neither has made any progress toward reaching a contract extension.
It’s going to be tricky for the Rangers to retain both players beyond this season. The Rangers have $52.375 million committed to 13 players next season. This figure does not include pending UFA’s Zuccarello, St. Louis, Lee Stempniak and Matt Hunwick. Nor does it include restricted free agents Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller and John Moore. Backup goaltender Mackenzie Skapski is also excluded, as in all likelihood he will begin next season at AHL Hartford.
During All-Star Weekend in Columbus, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman offered a projected 2015-16 salary cap ceiling between $71.6 million and $72.2 million based on the Canadian dollar.
History has shown that it’s difficult to keep a winning team together in the salary cap era. There’s only so many slices of the pie to go around. Sometimes when players are asked to take a smaller slice, they excuse themselves from the table knowing another team will come along to satisfy their desires.
The Rangers’ most straightforward decision will be locking up Stepan to a long-term extension that could exceed $6 million in annual-average value. As for Zuccarello and St. Louis, their futures with the Blueshirts aren’t guaranteed beyond this season.
St. Louis’ current slump is mirroring his initial struggles after joining the Rangers in a trade deadline blockbuster that sent former captain Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning last March. The 39-year-old former Hart Trophy winner has recorded one point in eight games and is suffering through a 13-game goalless drought.
Meanwhile, Zuccarello is playing like a man possessed. The 27-year-old Norwegian scored two goals in Tuesday’s 5-4 away over the Maple Leafs in Toronto, extending his point streak to a career-best six games. Since Dec. 8, spanning 27 games, Zuccarello is tied for second on the team with 21 points, including 15 assists.
Head coach Alain Vigneault recently stated his desire for Zuccarello to remain a Ranger for years to come.
“I believe that Mats is a very good hockey player,” Vigneault said on Feb. 3. “I would prefer he stay a New York Ranger. I’ve made that very clear to management. I think that this young man has a lot of upside, and I do believe that he can play much better than he has this year.”
Zuccarello is a good fit for Vigneault’s up-tempo system and has displayed excellent chemistry with linemate Derick Brassard over the past two seasons. Vigneault said he appreciates Zuccarello’s creativity, play-making vision and energetic style of play. He has a great pair of hands and plays larger than his diminutive frame.
Vigneault understands that sometimes tough calls need to be made.
“I do see him as part of our future,” Vigneault said of Zuccarello. “But at the end of the day this is a business, and if he wants to stay, and if we want him, there’s got to be a common ground. So that’s where that’s at right now.”
For Zuccarello to stay with the Rangers, he’s going to have to accept an extension below what he could potentially earn in unrestricted free agency. As a restricted free agent this past summer, Zuccarello agreed a one-year, $3.5 million contract on July 22. It’s difficult to take an educated guess on what Zuccarello could command as a free agent. All it takes is one general manager to be hot and heavy for a player to earn big bucks in free agency.
Just look at Zuccarello’s former linemate Benoit Pouliot. Following his breakthrough season with the Rangers, the Edmonton Oilers swooped in and gave him a five-year, $20 million contract last summer.
It’s interesting that Vigneault uses the term “upside” to describe Zuccarello. He’s been a late bloomer in his career and doesn’t appear to be the finished product. All of this adds intrigue to his situation with the Rangers.
For St. Louis, it makes more sense to take a pay cut to stay with the Rangers. The future Hall of Famer forced Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman to deal him to his preferred destination last March. A key factor in St. Louis joining the Rangers was his desire to raise his family in Greenwich, Conn.
St. Louis’ current contract pays him an annual-average value of $5.625 million and he is earning $5 million this season. His reputation for clutch playoff performances outweighs any concerns over his recent slump. St. Louis has recorded 41 goals and 42 assists in 88 career playoff games.
If the Rangers were to choose St. Louis over Zuccarello, it would be the clearest indication of the franchise being in full win-now mode. Zuccarello is 12 years younger than St. Louis. The summer of 2015 might be his only chance to seek a lucrative, long-term contract with multiple free agent suitors fighting for his services. Despite Zuccarello’s preference to stay with the Rangers, a first shot at free agency is hard to pass up.
If the Rangers aren’t able to agree to an extension with Zuccarello before the March 2 trade deadline, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will trade him. It would be difficult for the Rangers to swap Zuccarello for a player with similar offensive skill. As the trade deadline approaches, the Rangers will be seeking a faceoff-winning center and a bottom-pair defenseman who can add stability. Should they acquire an experienced center, 22-year-old Kevin Hayes would be moved to the wing.
It would be best for the Rangers to ride out one more playoff campaign with Zuccarello on their side instead of dealing him away before the deadline.
If either Zuccarello or St. Louis proves too costly, promising wingers Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich will have a greater chance of starting with the Rangers in next season.
Ranger have seen glimpses of 19-year-old Duclair’s blazing speed and quick-release shot. Buchnevich is another high-ceiling 19-year-old. The Russian winger has enjoyed tremendous success with Severstal Cherepovets of the KHL, collecting 11 goals and 15 assists in 42 games. He is expected to sign an entry-level contract with the Rangers following the completion of the KHL season.
“Pavel plays with good effort, desire and attitude,” European scout Oto Hascak said earlier this season. “He has exceptional ability and great vision with the puck. He has the potential to play a key role on an NHL team in the future.”
“So far this year, Pavel has been the most skilled and creative player on the ice,” European scout Vladimir Lutchenko added. “He skates well, has great vision and has the ability to anticipate the play very well.”
Keep an eye on Buchnevich. Just like Duclair, he’s going to play a big part in the Rangers’ success sooner rather than later.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey