GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Who will be the Rangers’ second-line center when the 2022-23 season begins?
That is the biggest question facing Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury as NHL free agency opens Wednesday at noon. But it isn’t the only thing Drury will need to address as he tries to complete the Blueshirts’ roster going into the fall.
There’s the not-insignificant matter of finding a quality backup goaltender for an affordable price; the need to re-sign 21-year-old forward Kaapo Kakko, and the need to add a depth forward or two and a depth defenseman or two.
This all has to be done while working with roughly $10.2 million of space under the NHL’s $82.5 million salary cap – and always keeping in mind that any moves made now have to leave cap space next summer to re-sign restricted free agents K’Andre Miller, Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil.
Still, if the Rangers are to continue the positive momentum from reaching the Eastern Conference Final this spring and put themselves on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders for next season and beyond, Drury must find a way to do it all, and on a budget.
The second-line center problem is the most pressing thing on Drury’s to-do list. Ryan Strome, who had served in that role for most of the past four seasons, is an unrestricted free agent, as is Andrew Copp, one of the trade acquisitions Drury made at the March deadline who helped get the Rangers to the NHL’s final four, and who would be another candidate for the role.
The Rangers weren’t able to sign either player when they had exclusive rights to negotiate with them, and so now those guys will be able to talk to the whole league. The Rangers could seek to bring one of them back, of course, but will shop around for other options, too.
The Colorado Avalanche’s Nazem Kadri is the biggest name center remaining, but it’s unlikely the Rangers can afford him. Kadri, who just won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche, is reportedly looking for a salary in the $7 million per year range.
Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin had been expected to hit the market but agreed Tuesday night with the Penguins on a four-year deal that reportedly will pay about $6.1 million per year.
One interesting name that has come up in recent days is Dylan Strome, Ryan Strome’s younger brother. Dylan Strome, 25, became a UFA when rebuilding Chicago opted to not make a qualifying offer to him to retain his rights as a restricted free agent. Dylan Strome had 22 goals and 26 assists (48 points) in 69 games for Chicago last season and 67 goals and 103 assists in 273 career games, an average of 0.62 points per game. At 6-3, 200 pounds, he’s bigger than his brother, who is 6-1, 193 and turned 29 on Monday.
Another intriguing possibility would be Vincent Trocheck of the Carolina Hurricanes (who also turned 29 on Monday). Trocheck, a four-time 20-goal scorer, has 150 career goals and 378 points in 555 games, an average of 0.68 points per game.
Drury also could bypass free agency and opt to trade for a center. Names such as Pierre-Luc Dubois of Winnipeg and former Ranger J.T. Miller of Vancouver have come up as possibilities. There’s also the chance Drury and coach Gerard Gallant could give current third-line center Chytil a crack at the second-line job.
As for the backup goaltender job, a couple of former Islanders, Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak, are available and potential candidates, along with the likes of Martin Jones, Ilya Samsonov and Braden Holtby, though there’s speculation that Holtby could be retiring.
The Rangers announced they had signed D Libor Hajek to a one-year contract extension Tuesday. CapFriendly reported it is a one-way deal worth $800,000.
Rangers' potential free-agent targets:
C Nazem Kadri (Avalanche) – The perfect blend of skill, grit and winning pedigree, coming off a Stanley Cup championship with Colorado. But his asking price – in the neighborhood of $7 million per year – would require shedding some salary to make room.
C Vincent Trocheck (Hurricanes) – He can score, he can check, he can win faceoffs, and taking him off Carolina’s roster makes them weaker.
C Andrew Copp (Rangers) – He helped the Rangers get to the Eastern Conference Final after coming over at the trade deadline. If he can’t get the big payday he wants elsewhere, maybe he’ll come back.
C Dylan Strome (Chicago) – This might be awkward, if the Rangers let his brother Ryan go and come after him instead. But maybe he could find the same chemistry with Artemi Panarin that his brother had?
G Thomas Greiss (Red Wings) – His numbers weren’t great this season, but Detroit was bad, so that may have had something to do with it. He’s 36, but all the Rangers need from him is 20-25 starts.