By Sean Hartnett
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By shedding longtime alternate captains Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi, the Rangers have significantly altered their core while gaining precious salary cap space to be a major player in free agency.
Should veteran defenseman Kevin Klein opt to retire, the Rangers will have just under $23 million in freed space while needing to agree to new contracts with restricted free agent forwards Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast. That money, in theory, could also be used to convince defenseman Brendan Smith to agree a new contract instead of exploring free agency when the market opens on July 1.
Last summer, general manager Jeff Gorton began tinkering with the core by swapping Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad. The Rangers have lost a lot of experience by dealing away Brassard, buying out Girardi and parting ways with Stepan.
On Friday, the Rangers traded Stepan along with backup goaltender Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes for 21-year-old, right-handed defenseman Anthony D’Angelo and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The move was geared toward the future and clearing cap room.
After years of dealing away first-round picks, the Rangers selected 18-year-old Swedish center Lias Andersson at No. 7 and 17-year-old Czech center Filip Chytil at No. 21 overall. Andersson is considered by scouts to be a versatile forward with considerable offensive upside who competes hard across 200 feet of ice. Chytil is regarded as a power forward in the making, an elusive skater and he can also play on the left wing.
The Rangers rounded out the draft by selecting 20-year-old defenseman and Glen Rock, New Jersey native Brandon Crawley, 17-year-old Swedish defenseman Calle Sjalin, 20-year-old Czech center Dominik Lakatos, 18-year-old Nova Scotia-born center Morgan Barron, and 21-year-old Finnish center Patrik Virta.
So, youth has been served and the Rangers’ prospect pool has been restocked. Now comes filling the gaps for the big club. Among key needs for the Blueshirts to address in the coming weeks will be finding a top-pair right-handed defenseman, a backup goalie who is capable of easing the load on 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, and at least one center, depending on whether J.T. Miller is moved back to the middle on a full-time basis.
Out of all of their needs, the two most pressing are gaining a top-pair right-handed defenseman and a power play ace. Top free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk would fill both of those needs. Shattenkirk logs 20 minutes of possession-strong play, he excels at initiating attacks, and can help unlock captain Ryan McDonagh’s full offensive potential by skating on his right side.
Over the past five seasons, Ottawa Senators’ dynamo Erik Karlsson is the only NHL defenseman to record more power play points (118) than Shattenkirk’s 113. Signing Shattenkirk would immediately upgrade a Rangers power play that slumped to 7.7 percent during the playoffs.
The last time the Rangers invested mega money in an unrestricted free agent was back in the summer of 2011, when they pursued the biggest fish and landed him. Brad Richards agreed to a nine-year, $60 million deal.
While Richards’ clutch heroics and leadership helped guide the Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, he was bought out of his contract one week following New York’s Game 5 elimination.
Generally, the biggest fear of general managers is being burned on the back end of a long-term deal. An over-commitment in term can be backbreaking. But every player has a different shelf life. Shattenkirk is 28. If the Rangers or any other team plan on offering him a seven-year contract, they can look at comparables.
Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle continued to be productive, high-tempo puck-movers into their mid-30s and beyond. At 6-foot and 209 pounds, Shattenkirk has a slightly larger frame, so perhaps he will withstand injuries.
There will be no shortage of suitors for Shattenkirk’s services. In all likelihood, there are going to be a few teams that will be ready to overpay. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Shattenkirk will go to the highest bidder. The opportunity to compete for another Stanley Cup lured both Richards and Boyle to The Garden, despite receiving more lucrative offers elsewhere.
In Shattenkirk’s case, he has spent most of his career with the St. Louis Blues, who underachieved last season, and most recently the Washington Capitals, a team that continually gets tripped up in the second round.
The Rangers have constantly demonstrated a commitment to winning and an ability to attract the big-name targets they pursue. With cap space and location on their side, they’re clear front-runners to secure the services of the talented New Rochelle native.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey