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Don’t expect Rangers to seek big-ticket free agents

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton introduces new head

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton introduces new head coach David Quinn at a press conference at Madison Square Garden on May 24. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Rangers were never in the hunt for John Tavares, or John Carlson. And Ilya Kovalchuk, who owns a home in the metropolitan area and decided to return to the NHL this season, got a three-year deal from the L.A. Kings and that was that.

When the free agent signing period begins at noon Sunday, don’t expect the Rangers — who have more than $29 million available in cap space, according to — to be chasing the biggest names on the market. The Rangers are rebuilding. They’ve said it over and over. And that means they’re committed to having a young lineup, full of prospects, with only a handful of veterans sprinkled in to provide leadership. So if you were expecting a play for the likes of Joe Thornton, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said on Monday, the first day of the club’s Prospect Development Camp, that the organization had been in contact with “a lot’’ of free agents during the one-week talking period that began last Sunday. Although Gorton has said again and again that the Rangers won’t be sending a team of all kids out on the ice every night this winter, he made it very clear what kind of veterans he’ll be looking to add to the roster.

“We’d like to add a few guys, some character players that can come in and maybe teach these guys the ropes,’’ Gorton said, adding that ideally the addition would “have a pretty good pedigree . . . have done some good things, and [would] come here to help us in certain situations.’’

So, think more along the lines of Stanley Cup-winner Brooks Orpik, 37, who was bought out by the Colorado Avalanche after he was traded there by Washington, which needed to clear salary cap room to sign Carlson, or Paul Martin, 36, who was bought out by the San Jose Sharks as they tried to clear salary cap room to allow them to bid for Tavares. The best thing about guys who’ve been bought out is they sometimes can be talked into taking lower salaries because they’ve already been paid two-thirds of their scheduled salary for the year.

The other thing to consider is that it is unknown which veterans on the roster Gorton will be able to trade. Will Mats Zuccarello, for example (one year remaining on his contract, at $4.5 million) be on the team when training camp starts?

Gorton said he was talking to some free agents who have previously — and recently — played for the Rangers. That group could include players like Rick Nash, who was traded to the Boston Bruins one day before the Feb. 26 deadline, or Michael Grabner, who was traded to the Devils a few days before that. A report Thursday on said Nash, 34, is telling teams he’s not looking to sign a deal now and is weighing whether to retire, because of “health considerations.’’ If Nash truly is off the market, then perhaps a guy like Grabner would make some sense. He was leading the team in goals when he was traded to the Devils, and he probably wouldn’t cost crazy money.

Of course, for that to happen, he’d have to be willing to settle for a modest contract, and he’d also need to come to grips that the Rangers are probably going to lose more games than they win this season. He’d also have to consider that he could even be traded again at this season’s deadline, as the rebuilding effort continues.

That’s probably not the sort of situation any A-list free agents would be looking to get into.

Rangers’ Needs in Free Agency

1. Goal-scoring. You want to teach kids how to win games? You gotta win some games. And you need goals to do that. Michael Grabner is a guy who makes some sense. He struggled with the Devils after he was traded, but with the Rangers, he was quite productive.

2. Grit. Jay Beagle won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals this spring. He doesn’t score much, but he wins faceoffs (56.4 percent for his career, 58.5 percent last season), and that’s always nice.

3. Goaltending. GM Jeff Gorton said Monday he wasn’t sure Henrik Lundqvist’s backup this season is currently on the roster. If the Rangers don’t trust Alekandar Georgiev or Marek Mazenec, Gorton may shop for a reliable veteran to play 15 or so games this season.

New York Sports