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Rangers faced with tough decisions as draft approaches

Pavel Buchnevich #19 of Team Russia tries to

Pavel Buchnevich #19 of Team Russia tries to skate clear of Fredrik Gauthier #22 of Team Canada during the gold medal game in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship at the Air Canada Centre on January 5, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Claus Anderson

In the previous four NHL seasons, the Rangers still were playing on May 22.

However, they aren’t playing this May 22.

During those four springs, there was fervent hope that the playoff runs would stretch into June. It happened only in 2014, when the Blueshirts marched to the Stanley Cup Final.

But this season’s edition of the Rangers — except for a handful of players who are competing in the IIHF World Championships — unlaced their skates a month ago.

They quickly were ousted by the Penguins, and the focus of the front office in late May and June is on the future rather than a postseason opponent.

So let the off-ice games begin.

One move already has been made: the signing of top prospect Pavel Buchnevich, the promising winger who is expected to arrive in New York from Russia this summer. The 21-year-old isn’t enough, of course. More changes are coming, starting with the NHL Draft on June 24 and 25, when general manager Jeff Gorton will explore trades to improve their picks and, perhaps, their October roster.

The Rangers currently will begin on a familiar note, with a third-round draft pick, No. 80 overall. Because of trades in recent years for Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis and Keith Yandle, they do not have a first-round selection for the fourth consecutive year. They also are slated to pick 140th, 170th and 201st but will look to trade up. The Flames and Maple Leafs, for example, each have three second-round picks.

Last June, team president Glen Sather traded Cam Talbot and a late-round pick to Edmonton for three picks. Carl Hagelin was sent to Anaheim for Emerson Etem and a second-round slot, in which they selected Ryan Gropp, who had 34 goals and 70 points in 66 games for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds last season.

One event before the draft could have an impact on the Rangers’ thinking: a potential expansion announcement.

If no decision on expanding to Las Vegas or Quebec City has been reached by the draft, the team or teams will be unable to begin play in the 2017-18 season. That’s because NHL teams will be given a year to prepare for an expansion draft.

If expansion is approved, however, the framework discussed by league and team executives and the NHL Players Association in March will allow teams to protect either one goalie, three defensemen and seven forwards or one goalie and eight skaters at any position. Players on entry-level deals and draftees would be exempt, presumably along with players with no-movement (waiver or trade) clauses. So general managers perusing their rosters might be more willing to make deals.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have to decide how much salary to shed, which unrestricted free agents to pursue and what to offer their restricted free agents based on what could be an increase of about $1.6 million in the salary cap to $73 million.

Losing the cap hits of UFAs Yandle, Dan Boyle, Dominic Moore and Eric Staal would save about $9.5 million. Buchnevich and Brady Skjei would add $925,000 each and the recent re-signing of Antti Raanta adds another $1 million. UFA Viktor Stalberg’s $1.1-million cost could be eliminated as well. And Nash, with a $7.8-million annual cap charge for two years, could be shopped, although the Rangers presumably would have to retain some salary.

Defensemen will be overpriced, but some, like St. Louis’ Kevin Shattenkirk, might be available via trade. Among the unrestricted free-agent forwards who could be available at reasonable prices: Anaheim’s Jamie McGinn, Detroit’s Darren Helm and Colorado’s Mikkel Boedker, all under 30. Officially, teams can begin interviewing unrestricted free agents on June 25.

Notable restricted free agents Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Dylan McIlrath are arbitration-eligible. In recent years, virtually all arbitration filings — by either the player or team — are settled before hearings, which usually are scheduled at the end of July. One keeper will be another RFA, Nicklas Jensen, 23, the former first-rounder acquired from Vancouver in exchange for Etem, who had five goals and two assists for Denmark in the IIHF tournament and was named the team’s top forward. Jensen also scored 15 goals in 41 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack and should get a long look in training camp.

New York Sports