When the Rangers and restricted free agent forward Pavel Buchnevich avoided arbitration by agreeing late Friday night to a two-year, $6.5 million contract, it started the clock for GM Jeff Gorton.
He’s had a productive summer, but he still has some major work to do in finding the best way of slashing the Rangers’ payroll to get it under the NHL’s $81.5 million salary cap.
The decision by Buchnevich and defenseman Jacob Trouba to file for arbitration meant that the Rangers would get a second summer buyout window opened for them, allowing them to buy out the contract of a player (or two) to get under the cap before opening night, Oct. 3.
With Buchnevich agreeing to a deal Friday, the buyout window will open Monday, and will be open for 48 hours, meaning Gorton has until Wednesday to decide if he wants to take advantage of his buyout option. The players whose names have been floated around the most in discussion of buyouts are defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith.
The other option Gorton has to reduce the payroll significantly would be to trade away players making significant salary, the most likely candidate being left wing Chris Kreider, who would become an unrestricted free agent a year from now if his contract isn’t extended.
The Rangers are in this position because Gorton has moved aggressively to upgrade the roster this summer, acquiring pieces that should speed up the rebuild that started with that letter to the fans in February 2018. The Rangers spent the last two NHL trade deadlines as sellers, but after they won the No. 2 pick overall in the NHL’s draft lottery in April, Gorton switched gears and start bringing in win-now talent.
First, he traded for 21-year-old defenseman Adam Fox, a Jericho native, and then he traded for Trouba, a No. 1 defenseman he signed to a seven-year, $56 million contract July 19. With the No. 2 draft pick, Gorton selected Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko, and then, on July 1, he landed the biggest prize of the free agent market, Artemi Panarin. He lured the Columbus Blue Jackets forward to Broadway with a seven-year, $81.5 million deal.
Signing Panarin and Trouba shot the Rangers’ payroll above the cap limit, and signing Buchnevich has pushed them more than $4 million over, according to payroll calculations by CapFriendly. And Gorton still has two RFAs left to sign in defenseman Tony DeAngelo and forward Brendan Lemieux.
Now, Gorton may have no choice but to trade Kreider, who has been the Rangers’ first-line left wing and who tied his career high in goals last season with 28. The 28-year-old carries a $4.65 million cap hit, and if he isn’t traded, the Rangers would likely have to sign him to a long-term deal paying him in the neighborhood of $7 million per year. That kind of money would be tough to fit under the cap in 2020-21 and beyond.
Other likely candidates to be traded would include forwards Vlad Namestnikov (one year remaining at $4 million) and Ryan Strome (one year, $3.1 million).
If Gorton opts to use the buyout window, Shattenkirk and Smith each have two years left on four-year contracts signed in the summer of 2017. Buying out Shattenkirk — whose cap hit in each of the next two years is $6.65 million — would save $5.2 million against the cap this season, according to CapFriendly.
But next season, his cap hit would be $6.1 million, and the Rangers would carry $1.433 million of dead money on their salary cap in the two seasons after that, 2021-22 and 2022-23.
A buyout of Smith, who carries a cap hit of $4.35 million per in each of the next two seasons, would save the Rangers $3.38 million this season, but his cap hit would be $3.15 million next season. And the Rangers would carry $1.15 million in dead money on their payroll for two years after that.