By Sean Hartnett
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Bob Dylan once sang “the times they are a-changin’.” The 1965 single could serve as the soundtrack for the Rangers’ offseason of upheaval.
Over the next few weeks, general manager Jeff Gorton will sign off on the roster alterations that could pump fresh life into the Rangers or set them back. The days leading up to the June 24-25 draft in Buffalo will be of particular interest.
Already, the Rangers have begun retooling. Point-producing defenseman Keith Yandle was dealt to the Florida Panthers on Monday evening for a 2016 sixth-round pick and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2017. The Rangers would receive the latter draft pick should Yandle avoid unrestricted free agency by agreeing to sign with the Panthers.
Negotiations between Yandle’s representatives and the Panthers are underway. General manager Tom Rowe is optimistic at the chance of persuading Yandle to commit his future to the upward trending Panthers.
“We wouldn’t have made the trade if we weren’t confident that we could come to a conclusion and get him into our system,” Rowe said during Monday’s conference call.
Trading Yandle will be a precursor for more intriguing moves to come. There are very few Blueshirts who are off limits. Henrik Lundqvist, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Brady Skjei, backup goaltender Antti Raanta and rookie ace Pavel Buchnevich make up a thin short list of Rangers perceived to be safe.
Star centers Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard appear to be the most valuable trade chips. Dealing either could net the Rangers a significant return, clear up precious cap room and help aid a struggling blue line in need of a reshuffling. Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues and Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks are the most talented defensemen on the trade block.
Stepan’s contract contains a no-movement clause for the third and fourth years of his deal (2017-18, 2018-19) and a limited no-trade clause during the final two years. The remaining three years of Brassard’s contract include limited no-trade protection. Brassard and Stepan have a history of serving as productive postseason performers. The Rangers must be very careful when considering offers for either.
Meanwhile, Rick Nash and Marc Staal continue to crop up in the rumor mill. The next two seasons of Staal’s contract include a no-movement clause, followed by three seasons of modified no-trade protection. The two remaining years of Nash’s contract include a limited no-trade clause. For the Rangers to move either, they would likely have to retain a percentage of their remaining cap hits (Nash — $7.8 million, Staal – $5.7 million) similar to how the Toronto Maple Leafs are swallowing $1.2 million of Phil Kessel’s $8 million AAV through 2021-22.
All of this potential salary shedding could put the Rangers in position to make a run at top unrestricted free agent Steven Stamkos. Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Buffalo and Stamkos’ current employer, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are among contenders for the 26-year-old’s signature. Stamkos is the sort of gem who almost never hits the open market. It would be worth moving heaven and earth to sign the prime-aged, 0.99 career point-per-game center. Stamkos could command an AAV above $9 million. The level of interest in the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner could push his annual earnings above Alex Ovechkin’s $9.538 million AAV deal.
The buyout window closes at 5 p.m. on June 30. If the Rangers were to buy out 32-year-old defenseman Dan Girardi, $1.75 million of his $5.5 million AAV salary would count against the salary cap in 2016-17. Then $2.75 million in 2017-18, $3.75 million in the two years that follow and $1.25 million for four more seasons, ending in 2024.
“Well, I think so,” Girardi said when asked on breakup day if the Rangers are still committed to him. “Not much has been discussed. They have to do their thing. I’m ready to be my best next year. That’s not my decision to make. I’m not the coach or the GM or the president. That’s not my division. I’m just a player, and I’ve got to be ready to be myself.”
While it’s unclear which measures Gorton will take to shake up the Rangers, fans should be mindful of how he masterminded a revitalization of the Boston Bruins while serving as interim GM in 2006. Gorton drafted or acquired Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara, Phil Kessel and Marc Savard that summer.
The bulk of these moves paid off handsomely when the Bruins lifted the Stanley Cup in 2011. It’s time for Rangers fans to fasten their seat beats. This could be an offseason like no other in recent memory.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey