On the day the Rangers introduced their grand free agent prize, Artemi Panarin, at Madison Square Garden, David Quinn was asked just how excited he was about the roster he’ll be coaching this season.
“Well, the roster’s not complete, but looking at it right now, it’s exciting,’’ said Quinn, the Rangers' second-year coach. “There’s a lot of optimism within the walls of our locker room and within our organization.’’
The additions of Panarin, Jacob Trouba and first-round pick Kaapo Kakko have created plenty of excitement for the Rangers, but with two months to go before the start of training camp, GM Jeff Gorton still has plenty of work to do to solidify the roster, beginning with figuring out how to sign Trouba and the Rangers’ other restricted free agents and fit them all under the $81.5 million salary cap.
At the moment, the Rangers have about $7 million available under the cap, according to Cap Friendly (presuming, of course, that Kakko, who signed an entry level contract this week, makes the team).
That won’t even be enough to sign Trouba, a 25-year-old, No. 1 defenseman who had eight goals and 50 points last season for Winnipeg and figures to get more than $8 million per season on a long term deal. Gorton is going to have to find a way to create enough cap room to sign Trouba, as well as RFAs Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux and Vinni Lettieri.
One way to do that is by buying out a player or two — Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith are the two names that have been thrown around most often as buyout candidates — and that became an option when Trouba and Buchnevich filed for arbitration (Trouba’s hearing date is set for July 25, and Buchnevich’s for July 29), which triggered the opening of a second buyout window.
But it’s hardly automatic that Gorton would use the buyout option. He could open cap space by making trades instead. Chris Kreider, who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, is a possibility, and so are Vlad Namestnikov (who is scheduled to earn $4 million this season) and others.
But with the roster upgrades they’ve made this summer, the Rangers could be in the hunt for a playoff spot next spring. Keeping Kreider, 28, would certainly help them in that chase.
Presuming neither Shattenkirk (two years left on a contract that pays an average of $6.65 million per) nor Smith (two years left, $4.35 million per) can be traded, it may make sense to keep the 30-year-old Shattenkirk as a veteran presence on the blue line of a team that will likely have 21-year-olds Adam Fox and Libor Hajek in the lineup every night.
One way to do that would be to stash Smith, also 30, in the minor leagues, which would remove his $4.35 million from the payroll (about $1 million would count against the cap). Buying out Shattenkirk and/or Smith would create cap space for this season, but not next, and would leave dead money on the cap the two years after that.
Smith finished the season strong, contributing as a fourth-line left wing. But banishing him to the minors likely would create enough room to sign Buchnevich, and Gorton would then only need to create a little more to make space for DeAngelo and Lemieux (Lettieri may not even make the NHL roster).
There’s also the possibility that Gorton could view Fox and DeAngelo — both 5-11, righthanded-shooting, offensive defensemen — as duplicate players, freeing him to deal away DeAngelo, who had 4 goals, 26 assists, 30 points in 61 games last season, but also found himself in Quinn’s doghouse on more than one occasion.