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SportsColumnistsColin Stephenson

Are the Rangers still part of Ryan Strome's future?

New York Rangers center Ryan Strome (16) controls

New York Rangers center Ryan Strome (16) controls the puck against the Edmonton Oilers during the first period at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY, on Monday, Jan 03, 2022. Credit: Brad Penner

ANAHEIM, Calif. – There were questions for a while, doubts, about whether Ryan Strome was truly a top-echelon center iceman or just a guy who looked good playing next to Artemi Panarin. Strome answered those questions last season when he played without Panarin for three weeks while Panarin was on a leave of absence from the team, and played well.

And Strome played well this past week, when Panarin was out while in COVID-19 protocol. He produced two goals and two assists in the three games Panarin missed prior to Saturday’s late game in Anaheim against the Ducks, and his reconfigured line, with 2020 No. 1 draft pick Alexis Lafreniere on the left and gritty Barclay Goodrow on the right, looked good as a unit.

"I think you have to adjust a little bit,’’ Strome, who could be a free agent this summer, said of playing without Panarin. "Some of (Panarin’s) tendencies are unlike anyone else. I mean, he's allowed to do different things on the ice because of the production he has, right? He's got a little bit more leeway. So yeah, it's a little bit different. But Laffy (Lafreniere)'s done an unreal job. I think he's been really good. I think Goody (Goodrow)'s been great. So, for me, it's just an opportunity to play with two good players.’’

Strome said it’s natural when playing with Panarin, the 2020 Hart Trophy finalist, to always want to defer to him. But he’s learned over the years not to do that "because you can overpass to him.’’ So whenever he is on the ice, whether he is out there with or without Panarin, he said he just tries to "make the best read at all times.’’

Entering Saturday, Strome was fifth on the Rangers in scoring (26 points) with eight goals and 18 assists in 31 games played. And Rangers coach Gerard Gallant has been quite pleased with the combination of Mika Zibanejad and Strome as the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 centers.

"We like our middle,’’ Gallant said Friday after the Rangers’ practice. "We’ve got 1 and 2 (with Zibanejad and Strome), there's no doubt about that.’’

Coming into the season, Zibanejad and Strome were both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer, but Zibanejad signed an eight-year, $68 million extension when the season started in October. So GM Chris Drury locked up his No. 1 center. But what about No. 2?

Given the chemistry Strome has had with Panarin, signing him to an extension before he hits free agency seems like an obvious move to make. But it’s not so easy. Strome, 28, likely would be able to get more on the open market than the Rangers – who are going to be looking at some salary cap issues next season – will be able to afford to pay him.

Right now, staying with the Rangers would look to be a good situation for Strome, with the comfort of having Panarin on his left wing and being part of a group that looks to be developing into a playoff team this season and setting itself up to be a Stanley Cup contender beyond that. But is it worth, potentially, signing for millions of dollars less than he could get elsewhere?

Looking at the contracts the Rangers are committed to for next season, they’ve got $53.44 million going to seven players: Panarin, Adam Fox, Zibanejad, Jacob Trouba, Chris Kreider, goalie Igor Shesterkin and grinding forward Barclay Goodrow.

Add Ryan Lindgren ($3 million), Patrik Nemeth ($2.5 million), Filip Chytil ($2.3 million), Ryan Reaves ($1.75 million), K’Andre Miller ($925,000), Alexis Lafreniere ($925,000), Nils Lundkvist or Zac Jones ($925,000 each), Jarred Tinordi ($900,000) and Dryden Hunt ($762,500) to the payroll, and that’s $67.43 million in salary committed to 16 players.

There’s also $3.43 million of dead cap money (from buyouts of Kevin Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi and Tony DeAngelo) on the books, which takes their total salary for next season up to $70.85 million and leaves $11.65 million available under the NHL’s $82.5 million cap next season to re-sign Strome (or a replacement), restricted free agent Kaapo Kakko, a backup goalie, and up to four more players to fill the 23-man roster.

Kevin Rooney, a valuable fourth-liner and penalty-killer, is an unrestricted free agent who would warrant a raise over the $750,000 he’s making this season. And Sammy Blais (remember him?) is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Coming off a season-ending ACL injury, he likely won’t get a huge raise over his current $1.5 million salary.

Let’s say Rooney, Blais and the new backup goalie get a combined $3.5 million next season. Unless Drury can make some trades over the offseason that reduce the payroll some, that would leave the Rangers $8.15 million to pay Strome, Kakko, and one or two depth forwards.

That’s not a lot.

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