Free-agent forward Artemi Panarin is going to sign with somebody shortly after the NHL free agent signing period kicks off at noon Monday, and Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton certainly would love that somebody to be the Rangers.
But if Panarin, the former Columbus Blue Jackets winger, ultimately chooses to go to Florida, or even the Islanders, Gorton won’t be scrambling desperately to find a Plan B. Gorton and the Rangers have had a busy summer already, upgrading the roster and significantly accelerating the team’s rebuild.
“I don’t feel like we need to do anything, to be honest with you,’’ Gorton told reporters a week ago, at the conclusion of an NHL Draft that saw the Rangers take Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko. “I think that we’ve always, in the last few years, we’re trying to take advantage of situations when the time comes for us to jump on something, we’ll try to do that. And if something comes along where we think it’s good for us, short term and long term, we’ll do it.’’
Getting the No. 2 pick overall in the draft lottery was a major score for the Rangers’ rebuild. That gave them the opportunity to take Kakko, considered to be one of two transformational players in the draft, with Devils No. 1 pick Jack Hughes.
But Gorton made a couple other moves that advanced the plan as well, first trading a second round pick for defenseman Adam Fox, the Jericho native who starred for Harvard for three seasons, and then pulling off a huge deal to get defenseman Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg a few days before the draft.
Trouba, a restricted free agent whom Gorton still has to sign, gives the Rangers a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, and at just 25 years old, he can serve as a foundation piece for years to come. Fox, 21, figures to jump to the head of the line of the prospects Gorton has acquired over the past two years, and is favored to earn a spot on the opening night roster.
Adding the 27-year-old Panarin would improve the Rangers’ top line and instantly thrust them into the hunt for a playoff spot after 16 months of rebuilding and two seasons out of the playoffs.
But it would require some maneuvering on Gorton’s part to make it happen. The Rangers are projected, according to Cap Friendly, to have $18 million in available cap space. Trouba, who played last season on a one-year contract at $5.5 million, is expected to get somewhere between $7 and $8 million per year, and Panarin, who scored 29 goals and 87 points for Columbus last season, is expected to command north of $11 million per season.
That means if the Rangers sign Panarin, they’re going to have to clear out some space under the cap to sign their other restricted free agents, Tony DeAngelo, Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Lemieux.
They can do that by trading away Chris Kreider, who has one year left on his current contract and will either be extended or traded. According to reports, Gorton has not yet had substantive discussions with Kreider’s agent, which suggests Gorton is exploring trade possibilities for the 28-year-old left wing. One report said Colorado turned down a chance to acquire Kreider for the 16th pick overall at last weekend’s draft.
Other players — the names of forwards Vlad Namestnikov and Jimmy Vesey have been mentioned — could be traded to create room, and another option is to buy out the contracts of defensemen Brendan Smith and/or Kevin Shattenkirk, the local favorite who visited the Rangers prospect development camp on Thursday. Gorton said at the draft in Vancouver that he wasn’t planning on buying anyone out, but was prepared to do so if he needed to facilitate other moves.
Shattenkirk has two years remaining on a contract that costs $6.65 million per under the cap, and Smith has two years left on a deal that costs $4.35 million per under the cap. The deadline to buy players out is Sunday, so if Gorton believes he is going to land Panarin, he may have to exercise a buyout first.
Rangers’ To-Do List
F Pavel Buchnevich (Restricted free agent, expiring entry level contract of three years, $2.775 million)
F Brendan Lemieux (Restricted free agent, expiring entry level contract of three years, $3.21 million)
D Jacob Trouba (Restricted free agent, expiring contract of one year, $5.5 million)
D Tony DeAngelo (Restricted free agent, expiring entry level contract of three years, $2.775 million)
F Artemi Panarin (Blue Jackets) – Playmaker had 87 points in 2018-19, but he’ll be pricey
F Mitch Marner (Maple Leafs) – The top RFA available, would cost four first round picks
F Mats Zuccarello (Stars) – Former fan favorite is a UFA. Is either side really interested in a reunion?
D Kevin Shattenkirk (Two years remaining on contract, at $6.65 million AAV)
D Brendan Smith (Two years remaining on contract, at $4.35 million AAV)
Possible Trade bait
F Chris Kreider (A year away from unrestricted free agency, due $4.625 million)
F Vladislav Namestnikov (See above, regarding UFA status. Due $4 million)
F Jimmy Vesey (See above, regarding UFA status. Due $2.275 million)