On a July morning two summers ago, it came down to the wire for Chris Kreider.
Unable to reach an agreement with the Rangers on a new contract, Kreider, a restricted free agent, flew to Toronto for an arbitration hearing. But in the 11th hour, the promising 23-year-old power forward avoided the hearing and agreed to a two-year deal worth $4.95 million.
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On Thursday, Kreider, again a restricted free agent, was asked if he was prepared for another financial faceoff. While sipping a glass of water at an event in Manhattan, he said: “Another trip to Toronto? I hope not.”
As the NHL offseason ramps up, beginning with the entry draft next weekend, negotiating with the left wing is one of the key decisions for the re-loading Rangers after a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kreider’s strong second half in 2015-16 brought him to 21 goals and 43 points, essentially the same as the prior season (21-46). Kreider, and fellow young forwards J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes all are due for new contracts, which could cost between $8 million and $10 million annually to the Blueshirts, who don’t have much wiggle room under the salary cap, which is expected to rise to about $73 million. A $1.6 million increase is small change in a league where the average salary is $2.6 million.
Aging defenseman Dan Boyle’s $4.5 million is off the books, and unrestricted free agent Keith Yandle ($2.6 million) will command a lucrative, long-term contract when he hits free agency on July 1, but that’s clearly not enough.
So general manager Jeff Gorton must opt for trades to shed salary in order to create more cap space and perhaps move up the board in the annual draft, which begins Friday at First Niagara Center in Buffalo. Swaps rather than selections — for the fourth consecutive year, the Rangers don’t have a first-round pick — are the focus.
Last year at the draft, the cap-strapped Rangers were forced to move Carl Hagelin and goalie Cam Talbot for cap space and picks.
Gorton’s predicament is this: Several names carrying significant cap hits have been floated — Rick Nash, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi and Derick Brassard — but it’s unclear on the number of takers or an appropriate return. And the Rangers currently have just five draft picks (at 81, 98, 141, 171 and 201).
“They’re in a bit of a bind,” said one general manger who asked not to be identified. “It’s a challenge.”
Nash, 32, and his $7.8 million cap hit for the next two seasons, will certainly have some appeal, especially because the Rangers will have to retain some of Nash’s salary and presumably include some prospects in any exchange.
The issues with the speculation involving Stepan and Brassard, each of whom have long-terms deals averaging $6.5 million and $5 million respectively, are modified no-trade clauses and the Rangers’ brass can’t afford to trade a center without getting one back. The veterans Girardi, who regressed dramatically, and Staal have no-move clauses, and the Rangers would like a top six defenseman besides prospect Brady Skjei, who finished the season with the team.
Pavel Buchnevich, 21, the talented Russian winger drafted in 2013 who will attend development camp during the week after the draft, should help on offense, and so would Harvard forward and Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey, 23, who turned down Nashville’s contract offer and becomes an entry-level free agent on Aug. 15.
But first things first in Buffalo, where perhaps St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Toronto’s James Van Riemsdyk may be available via trade.
As for the draft itself, unless the Rangers package one of their goalie prospects, it’s doubtful they will draft another rather than forwards or defensemen.
In the third round, Finnish centers Otto Makinen, Janne Kuokkanen and Henrik Borgstrom and Swede Linus Lindstrom could be options. But that’s long-term: the Rangers are still hoping to retool sooner.