NHL teams can begin signing free agents on Saturday, but Rangers general manager Chris Drury won’t be in the market for the top names available. He will be hunting for bargains as he tries to fill out a roster that under new coach Peter Laviolette will attempt to do better than the team’s first-round playoff exit this spring.
The NHL’s salary cap has been set at $83.5 million for the 2023-24 season, and according to PuckPedia, the Rangers currently have $71.74 million in salary commitments for a group that includes eight forwards, five defensemen and goalie Igor Shesterkin. Barring a trade to offload some salary, that leaves approximately $11.76 million to re-sign restricted free agents K’Andre Miller and forward Alexis Lafreniere and add three to five more forwards, a defenseman and a backup goaltender.
In the eyes of many, Lafreniere, 21, has not lived up to expectations after becoming the No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 draft. In his first three seasons, he’s been mostly a third-line left wing and has 47 goals and 44 assists in 216 games, including 16 goals and 23 assists in 81 games last season. He figures to get a two-year bridge deal.
Miller’s deal will be the big one. The 23-year-old has been a top-four defenseman and captain Jacob Trouba’s regular partner virtually since Day 1 of his NHL career. In 2022-23, he was seventh on the Rangers in scoring and second (behind Adam Fox) in scoring by defensemen with 43 points (nine goals, 34 assists). His average ice time of 21 minutes, 57 seconds was second on the team (behind Fox).
During the Rangers’ breakup day, Miller passed on discussing his contract. “Thankfully, I have an agent [Ian Pulver] right now,’’ he said. “So I’ll let him kind of do his job there and I’ll try to just do my job and focus on hockey, get in the gym again and get back feeling good for next year.''
Looking at comparables, Noah Hanifin, 26, of Calgary (seven goals, 31 assists, 38 points, 22:39 average ice time in 2022-23) carries a $4.95 million cap hit. Filip Hronek, 26, of Vancouver (9-30-39, 21:42) gets an average of $4.4 million and Brady Skjei, 29, of Carolina (18-20-38, 21:49) averages $5.25 million per season.
Edmonton’s Evan Bouchard, 23, is a restricted free agent as well, and if he signs before Miller, that would be another contract that would serve as a measuring stick for a potential deal for Miller.
If Miller signs for an average of $4.75 million and Lafreniere signs for an average of $2.5 million, that would leave roughly $4.5 million to fill out the roster.
A report by ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes on Friday said former Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, 37, is likely to sign with the Rangers, his favorite team when he was growing up in Connecticut, to back up Shesterkin.
Drury probably would love to bring back speedy fourth-line forward Tyler Motte, an unrestricted free agent whom he acquired at the trade deadline in each of the last two seasons.
At breakup day, Motte said he’d like to come back. “You never know who’s going to be back in a locker room the beginning of each year, but this was one that I love to be a part of,’’ he said. “I think there’s a lot of the core guys that you take two runs at it with, and you’d love to do it again.’’
The Rangers have presented qualifying offers to Miller, Lafreniere, forward Lauri Pajuniemi and defensemen Ty Emberson and Brandon Scanlin. They did not make qualifying offers to defensemen Libor Hajek and Cooper Zech and forward Patrick Khodorenko.
Rangers' potential targets in free agency:
G Jonathan Quick: The 37-year-old former L.A. Kings great finished this season as a backup on Vegas, and ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes reported Friday the Connecticut native likely will sign with the Blueshirts, his favorite team growing up.
LW Tyler Motte: Has the speed and grit the Rangers need on their fourth line, and they clearly like him. But they couldn’t afford to re-sign him last summer, so can they figure out how to keep him this time around?
RW Kailer Yamamoto: Traded by Edmonton to Detroit and then bought out by the Red Wings, he’d be a great fit, and might be amenable to a cut-rate deal, given he’s being paid by Detroit for the next two years.
RW Jesper Fast: Boy have the Rangers missed him since he signed with Carolina three years ago. He’d sure look good on the right side of that Artemi Panarin-Vincent Trocheck line.
LW/RW Josh Bailey: The Islanders had no use for him, but now that he’s been traded and bought out (by Chicago), might the Rangers find use for him somewhere in their top 9 forward group? He’d no doubt be highly motivated and would probably come cheap.