By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

So far, this offseason hasn’t been kind to the Rangers. Three division rivals — the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets — have all strengthened their rosters by adding game-changing talents.

READ MORE: New York City Students Return From Holiday Weekend To Revised Attendance Policy

After being bounced by the Rangers in consecutive playoffs and held to one goal apiece in three consecutive Eastern Conference Quarterfinal defeats, the Penguins had to do something major to address their scoring woes. Firepower won’t be an issue now that explosive winger Phil Kessel will be teamed with all-world playmakers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Kessel never played with a No. 1 quality center during his six-year stay in Toronto and still averaged 0.88 points per game as a Leaf. All signs point to Kessel enjoying a monster year in the Steel City.

Meanwhile, the Caps have gotten aggressive after the indignity of blowing a 3-1 Conference Semifinal series lead to the opportunistic Blueshirts. Washington capitalized on the underperforming St. Louis Blues’ eagerness to shake things up by stealing away skilled winger T.J. Oshie for a less skilled winger in Troy Brouwer, goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley and a 2016 third-round pick. Importantly, the Caps landed one of the league’s clutch goal-getters, a possession beast and a three-time Stanley Cup winner by signing Justin “Mr. Game 7” Williams to a two-year, $6.25 million contract.

The Blue Jackets are going to be a dangerous team after taking advantage of the Chicago Blackhawks’ desperation for cap relief. They pulled off a seven-player blockbuster deal to pry supremely talented 22-year-old Brandon Saad from the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Last season, the Jackets were robbed of the chance to compete for the playoffs by a bizarre injury jinx. Columbus led the NHL with 508 man-games lost, but were still able to finish with 89 points. Next year, Columbus will strike back.

To borrow a Tortorella-ism, the Rangers appear to be taking a “sideways step” in an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division. On paper, the Blueshirts look like a weaker team after salary cap concerns forced them to trade away penalty-killing ace Carl Hagelin to the Anaheim Ducks. Acquiring Hagelin is the kind of move that could put a contender like the Ducks over the top. The Rangers did acquire a high-potential player in return in the form of Emerson Etem and are counting on Alain Vigneault to harness the full potential of the former first-round pick.


New general manager Jeff Gorton has his work cut out for him given the Rangers’ delicate cap situation. With roughly $10 million left in available cap space, the Rangers still have to sign restricted free agents Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Etem to new deals.

Stepan was one of 23 NHL RFAs to file for salary arbitration before Sunday’s 5 p.m. deadline. If Stepan and the Rangers cannot agree to an extension, they will go to arbitration. All arbitration hearings will be held in Toronto between July 20 and August 4. Miller, Etem and Fast are not arbitration eligible.

READ MORE: Former NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Says He Will Not Run For Governor

Very few cases go to arbitration. The last time the Rangers went to arbitration was in 2009 when Nikolay Zherdev was awarded $3.9 million. The Rangers exercised their option to walk away from the deal and Zherdev became an unrestricted free agent.

Last Thursday, the Buffalo Sabres signed 24-year-old center Ryan O’Reilly to a mammoth seven-year, $52.5 million ($7.5 million annual average value) contract extension. It was excellent news for Stepan and bad news for the Blueshirts.

Initially, it was thought that the Rangers would be able to lock their 25-year-old alternate captain into a long-term deal slightly above $6 million annually. Buffalo giving a comparable center in O’Reilly crazy money raises Stepan’s asking price.

Stepan is an upward-trending star who is just breaking into his prime years. He has averaged 0.78 points per game over the past three seasons and has scored his share of memorable playoff goals. The question is: How far do the Rangers go to satisfy Stepan?

He is definitely worth between $6 and $6.5 million million per year. Anything above $6.5 million is an overpayment. He’s not worth Nicklas Backstrom or Anze Kopitar money. A demand of a long-term deal above $7 million AAV could force the Rangers to do the unthinkable — trade Stepan away.

Finding takers for third-pair defenseman Kevin Klein (three years, $2.9 million AAV) and/or fourth-line winger Tanner Glass (two years, $1.45 million AAV) could help alleviate the cap squeeze. Demoting Glass to the minors would force the Rangers to carry $500,000 in dead cap space, but would free up $950,000 of cap room.

Rangers fans are hoping that Stepan will sacrifice his ultimate earning power for the security of remaining on a team that has qualified for the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons.

MORE NEWS: Candlelight Vigil Tonight For Michelle Go, Woman Pushed In Front Of Train At Times Square Subway Station

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.