It’s going to be a long summer for the Rangers, longer than most people had expected it would be.
It turned out the Devils were simply a bad matchup for them in a first-round playoff series. New Jersey was too fast and too youthful for the Rangers. The Devils had won three of the four games in the regular season series between the teams, and the only advantages the Blueshirts had in the matchup were their experience, having gone all the way to the Eastern Conference final last year, and their goaltender, Igor Shesterkin, who was more accomplished than Vitek Vanecek.
Those advantages were clear in the first two games in New Jersey, when the Rangers won both games handily (5-1 and 5-1) to take a 2-0 lead. But Devils coach Lindy Ruff replaced Vanecek with rookie Akira Schmid, who stabilized the position and allowed the Devils to get over their nerves and win four of the next five games and take the series.
“They're a really good team,’’ defenseman Adam Fox said of the Devils at the Rangers’ breakup day. “I didn't think they saw our best for the whole series, which is disappointing. But they are a good team, and they have a lot of speed, a lot of skill and credit to them. I wish they saw everything we had in that series. It wasn't our best for sure.’’
So what’s next for the Rangers?
Building next year’s team is going to be challenging for GM Chris Drury.
According to CapFriendly, the Rangers have approximately $71.125 million committed in salary for eight forwards, five defensemen and Shesterkin next season. According to PuckPedia, they also have roughly $611,000 in performance bonuses achieved this season that will go on next year’s cap, meaning they have about $71.74 million committed for next season.
Given that the NHL salary cap is expected to rise only $1 million, to $83.5 million, that would leave about $11.76 million available to re-sign restricted free agents K’Andre Miller and Alexis Lafrenière and then add three forwards, a defenseman, and a backup goaltender.
Lafrenière will most likely get a two-year bridge deal, similar to what Kaapo Kakko got last summer (a $2.1 average annual value) and Filip Chytil got two summers ago ($2.3 million AAV). Miller, who had nine goals and 34 assists averaged the second-most ice time of any skater, with 21 minutes, 57 seconds (behind Fox’s 24:23), so he figures to make in the $5 million-plus range.
(For comparison purposes, former Ranger Brady Skjei, who had 18 goals and 38 points this season for Carolina, and averaged 21:49 in ice time, earns an average of $5.25 million per season.)
So if Miller and Lafrenière get a combined $7.5 million, let’s say, that would leave $4.26 million to fill out the roster.
It’s hard to imagine how Drury could improve the roster with that little to spend.
To start with, bringing back unrestricted free agents Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane or Niko Mikkola seems unrealistic, though the fourth player they added at the deadline, forward Tyler Motte, maybe could return. The Rangers acquired Motte at each of the last two trade deadlines, so clearly, they like him. But it’s all about dollars. Are the Rangers willing to pay him the same $1.35 million he got from Ottawa last summer? Can they get him to take less?
Drury could try to trade someone off the roster to open up space under the cap. Defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who is under contract for one more year, at an AAV of $3 million, has no trade protection. Forward Barclay Goodrow (four years remaining at an AAV of $3.64 million) has a 15-team no-trade list.
Will Drury bring back backup goalie Jaroslav Halak, at the same $1.5 million salary he got this season? Or is that a spot where the GM might try to find a cheaper option?
One thing seems certain: the Rangers are going to need players on entry level contracts, such as Hartford forward Will Cuylle and/or 2021 first-round pick Brennan Othmann, to make the team and contribute next season.
And if they don’t keep Kane or Tarasenko, then they’re going to need to find a couple right wings to play on the top two lines. Kakko would figure to be one of those. Who would be the other?