Last summer, the first task for Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather was to sign a head coach and build a coaching staff. That worked out pretty well, with Alain Vigneault & Co. guiding the team to the Stanley Cup Final.
Sather also rolled the dice and didn't use a compliance buyout on Brad Richards, and the veteran center responded with 20 goals and 31 assists and stepped up as interim captain after Ryan Callahan was traded in March.
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When the NHL free-agent market opens On Tuesday, the challenges and risks and financial considerations will be different. On Saturday, Sather said keeping his own players and / or finding new ones is "complicated" because of the restraints of the $69-million salary cap, which is about $2 million lower than expected.
Richards is gone and the Rangers have more than $23 million in cap space, but they also have only 10 players under contract: Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Talbot, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein. They also have given qualifying offers to restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and John Moore.
Derek Dorsett was traded to Vancouver on Saturday to free some space ($1.6 million) under the cap, which can be exceeded by 10 percent during the summer.
Defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle will test the market and likely will sign elsewhere. But the core, except for center, is fairly solid. The right wingers are Nash, St. Louis and Zuccarello; the left wingers are Kreider, Hagelin and perhaps prospect J.T. Miller. The top three defensemen -- McDonagh, Girardi and Staal -- will be back, and Klein could move to the second pair. The fourth line could be pieced together, perhaps with Jesper Fast and another prospect (Ryan Haggerty, Danny Kristo). In goal, the Rangers are set with Lundqvist, who signed a seven-year, $59.5-million contract during the season, and backup Talbot, who has one year remaining at $562,000.
Once the market settles down Wednesday, perhaps the Rangers will find some stopgaps. An example: wingers who might contribute goals on a one-year deal such as Dany Heatley, Mason Raymond, Dustin Penner and Lee Stempniak. More players became available Monday, so there could be bargains in the coming weeks.
But the Rangers' biggest hole remains at center, and the market is thin beyond Paul Stastny, who is expected to receive a seven-year deal worth close to $50 million. Stepan and Brassard will have to lead the way unless Sather pulls off a trade for a No. 1 center this summer or at next season's trade deadline.
If Carolina shuffles the deck and Eric Staal, the older brother of Marc, becomes available, he would fit the Rangers' No. 1 need. But the Hurricanes would want a center, a defenseman and maybe more, and that cost (perhaps Brassard and Moore) might be prohibitive.
Staal, 29, has two years left with an $8.2-million cap charge. Presumably the Rangers would cover close to $6 million of that with Brassard and Moore.
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