By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers are going to have to think long and hard whether they view star winger Rick Nash as part of their core moving forward. This summer is expected to be wild, as a number of blockbuster deals could come to fruition.
Nash’s name has cropped up in the rumor mill and speculation about his future with the Blueshirts will be a running theme throughout the offseason. Expect rumors to intensify as the June 24-25 draft in Buffalo nears.
During Sportnet’s Saturday headlines segment, insider Elliotte Friedman suggested teams are already checking in on Nash’s availability.
“You’re going to hear a lot of wild rumors this year, I think this is going to be a crazy season for them and one of the first to hit is Rick Nash of the New York Rangers,” Friedman said. “He has a 12-team list that he can be dealt to and there seems to be a little bit of smoke to this one.
“I think they’ve been asked. I think they’d be willing to do it under the right circumstances. However, there’s a couple things here,” Friedman continued. “No. 1, he’s got a $7.8 million cap hit for two more seasons — how would that work? And No. 2 , while he struggled this year, the Rangers really defended him. They felt that Nash played hurt and that affected his totals and I think they do look at it and say if he’s healthy next year he could be much more effective — but he’s going to be a name and the Rangers are going to be a team to watch.”
There are a number of factors for the Rangers to consider carefully while assessing whether it’s time to part ways with the 6-foot-4 forward, who will turn 32 on June 16. Any deal would likely see the Blueshirts swallowing a portion of Nash’s cap hit similar to how the Toronto Maple Leafs ate 15 percent of Phil Kessel’s salary to move him to the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer.
Nash isn’t nearly as durable as the 28-year-old Kessel, who hasn’t missed a game since the 2009-10 season. Meanwhile, Nash has suffered a litany of injuries since joining the Rangers, including a deep left leg bone bruise that played havoc with his regular season production in 2015-16. The talented, two-way winger was able to bounce back during the playoffs, recording four points in five games. His 0.80 points-per-game during the playoffs matched his career regular season average. While many Blueshirts faded during the series-ending Game 5 loss to the Pens, Nash was able to rise to the occasion by scoring a goal, recording four hits and registering three shots on goal.
You need scorers to get into the playoffs in the first place and it wouldn’t be shocking to see a healthy Nash among the NHL’s leading goal getters next season. He certainly offers the Rangers a ton of on-ice value in how effectively he plays at both ends and his ability to excel in Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system.
Though, the timing might be right to finally move No. 61. The Rangers are looking to retool their roster into one that can again go deep into the postseason. If there’s a player worth dramatically shaking up your roster to afford, it’s pending unrestricted free agent Steven Stamkos.
Should the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner hit free agency, he could command a salary pushing — or perhaps exceeding — Alex Ovechkin’s $9.538 million AAV deal. Los Angeles Kings superstar Anze Kopitar will begin the first year of an eight-year, $10 million AAV extension next season. Chicago Blackhawks duo Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane share the NHL lead with equal $10.5 million AAV contracts. The Montreal Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Stamkos’ current employer, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are well-positioned to offer No. 91 megabucks. An interesting dark horse could be the ambitious Buffalo Sabres.
The 2016-17 salary cap is expected to rise to close to $74 million. Either way, the Rangers would need to shed a good amount of salary to get into the Stamkos sweepstakes. That would mean for starters waving goodbye to pending UFA defenseman Keith Yandle and finding a taker for Nash.
If Stamkos is insistent on playing center, does that mean the Rangers would have to deal away one of Derek Stepan or Derick Brassard? Stepan’s contract contains a no-movement clause for the third and fourth years of the deal and a limited no-trade clause during the final two years. The remaining three years of Brassard’s contract include limited no-trade protection.
It would be hard to envision the Blueshirts moving either Stepan or Brassard, two core players who’ve continually proven to be big-game performers. Brassard is coming off a gold medal win with Canada at the IIHF World Championship, notching 11 points in 10 games. Perhaps, Stamkos would be willing to play on the wing full time given the makeup of the Rangers’ roster.
It’s going to be a fascinating summer and the Rangers are definitely going to be a team to watch. They’ve always been big game hunters and Stamkos is the most salivating potential free agent target to come along in some time.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey