Now that the Rangers have signed restricted free agents Tony DeAngelo and Alexandar Georgiev, will they soon lock up their remaining RFAs, Ryan Strome and Brendan Lemieux?
That is to be determined.
The Rangers have had to be frugal in free agency so far, because they don’t have money to spend. The biggest addition they’ve made to this point has been veteran defenseman Jack Johnson, who agreed to a one-year, $1.15 million contract, after he’d been bought out by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their other additions have been mainly depth pieces and minor leaguers.
They bought out Henrik Lundqvist to save $3 million under the NHL’s $81.5 million salary cap, and they were able to trade Marc Staal to Detroit to clear another $5.7 million. They let forward Jesper Fast leave as an unrestricted free agent when Carolina offered him a deal that paid him an average salary of $2 million.
The Rangers needed to do all they could to conserve as much space as possible under the cap in order to sign their own restricted free agents: DeAngelo, Georgiev, Strome, Lemieux and Phillip DiGiuseppe.
DiGiuseppe, 27, agreed to a one-year, $700,000 contract on Tuesday, and DeAngelo and Georgiev both avoided arbitration by agreeing to two-year deals on Thursday. DeAngelo got a reported $4.8 million average annual value, and Georgiev got an AAV of $2.425 million.
Strome and Lemieux have arbitration hearings scheduled on Nov. 5 and 6, respectively. They continue to negotiate in the meantime, but the Rangers are quickly running out of cap space.
According to CapFriendly, the Rangers currently have $10.88 million in available cap space. But they can’t use all of it. They must save space under the cap to allow for performance bonuses on players’ contracts. For example, Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 draft pick overall, can earn a maximum of $2.85 million in performance bonuses in 2020-21, according to CapFriendly. So can goaltender Igor Shesterkin. Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft, can earn a maximum of $2.65 million in bonuses.
There’s a formula that determines how much cap space each team has to leave open for bonus payments. How much the Rangers have to set aside will determine how much they would have available to sign Strome and Lemieux.
Strome, 27, earned $3.2 million in 2019-20 when he was the Rangers’ second line center, playing with Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin. He was the team’s third-leading scorer, with a career-high-tying 18 goals and a career-high 41 assists and 59 points.
Lemieux, 24, signed a one-year, $925,000 contract during training camp last fall, and then did not have a great year. Playing mostly in a fourth-line role, he scored six goals and a career-high 18 points in 59 games, and had a whopping 111 penalty minutes.
The Rangers will have a number in mind that they are willing to pay for both players, and they will have budgeted for that. With Strome, the Rangers have to decide whether he is the second line center they need behind No. 1 Mika Zibanejad, or a player who had a career year because he played with Panarin. If his case gets to arbitration, and he is awarded, say, $5 million per year, will the Rangers pay that?
Nikolai Zherdev, in 2009, was the last Rangers player to go through an arbitration hearing. The Rangers had tendered him a $3.25 million qualifying offer to retain his RFA rights, and he was awarded $3.9 million by the arbitrator.
The Rangers walked away from that decision, allowing Zherdev to become an unrestricted free agent.