While one half of Madison Square Garden's sports division has been in the midst of a frenzied LeBron-athon, the other half is taking a more subdued and less costly approach to NHL free agency, which also begins Thursday. One reason: The Rangers did not spend the last two years clearing massive cap space.
Last summer, for example, the Rangers traded Scott Gomez and his long-term, $7-million contract to Montreal, and a day later snapped up sniper Marian Gaborik, who delivered 42 goals and 86 points in 76 games for his $7.5-million paycheck. The roster is still listing from deals with significant cap hits: Wade Redden ($6.5 million), Chris Drury ($7 million) and Michal Rozsival ($5 million).
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Couple that with a shallow free-agent pool for offense, with most high-end players being re-signed by their clubs or tied up long-term. The exception: Ilya Kovalchuk, who will command about $8 million a year. The Los Angeles Kings have been speculated as leading the pack to sign Kovalchuk, who finished the season with the Devils.
So expect a quiet, if not deathly still, few days for the Blueshirts.
With 14 players under contract, the Rangers are under the $59.4-million salary cap by about $14 million and are focusing on signing their main restricted free agents, defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who together will cost about $7 million, and unrestricted forward Jody Shelley, who arrived from San Jose and added some leadership and muscle. Pencil Shelley in for about $850,000. Erik Christensen could add another $750,000-$800,000 and restricted free agent forward Brandon Prust $575,000.
Both Glen Sather and John Tortorella have targeted a veteran backup goalie to spell Henrik Lundqvist, who appeared in 73 games plus the Olympics last season. Among the candidates: unrestricted free agents Johan Hedberg (Atlanta), Antero Niittymaki (Tampa) and Martin Biron (Islanders). Let's assume that adds another $1 million, which leaves less than $4 million for a few more skaters.
No wonder the front office is hoping that prospect forwards Evgeny Grachev, Dale Weise or Derek Stepan and Wisconsin defenseman Ryan McDonagh (if he forgoes his senior year and signs), impress at camp and grab a job. Another boost could come from Mats Zuccarello Aasen, the 22-year-old Norwegian wing who scored 40 points in 35 games for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League.
With a summer cap of $65.3 million, teams can push the envelope, but must be at $59.4 million by October. Theoretically, the Rangers could sign a player to a multimillion-dollar deal if, in fact, they have already decided to demote Redden, 33, to Hartford during training camp, thus removing his cap hit. The brass also could fish for a reasonably priced center (Phoenix's Matt Lombardi, Anaheim's Saku Koivu) and a veteran defenseman, such as Henrik Tallinder.
Given the parity in the East, deals at February's trade deadline for an expiring contract could fuel a playoff push. In the 2011 free-agent market? Centers Brad Richards, Joe Thornton and Mikko Koivu, left wing Alex Semin and right wing Martin St. Louis.
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