The Rangers made the biggest splash of any team in free agency last year when they landed Artemi Panarin, the top prize on the market. This year, with their primary focus on retaining their own free agents, they barely made a ripple when NHL free agency opened on Friday.
GM Jeff Gorton and the management team signed eight players on the first day of free agency, the biggest name among them being defenseman Jack Johnson, a 33-year-old, 14-year NHL veteran. Johnson became a free agent after the final three years of his contract were bought out by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.
Johnson signed a one-year deal with the Rangers, for a reported $1.15 million, and will essentially be expected to replace Marc Staal, who was traded last month to Detroit.
As the Rangers must save room under the $81.5 million salary cap to sign their own restricted free agents — Tony DeAngelo, Ryan Strome, Alexandar Georgiev, Brendan Lemieux and Phillip DiGiuseppe — they did not spend much. They didn’t re-sign unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast, who was linked early in the day to Nashville.
The Rangers did sign two Long Islanders Friday, giving two-year deals to former Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid, 31, of Farmingville, and former Winnipeg Jets defenseman Anthony Bitetto, 30, of Island Park. Kinkaid signed for a reported $1.75 million, though with Igor Shesterkin and Georgiev ahead of him, he seems likely headed for the minors.
The 6-1, 210-pound Bitetto, who played 51 games for the Jets in 2019-20, signed for a reported $1.475 million. He will compete for a spot on the roster, perhaps as the sixth or seventh defenseman.
Forwards Kevin Rooney, who played 49 games with the New Jersey Devils in 2019-20, and Colin Blackwell, who split the season between Nashville and its AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, also got two-year deals. Rooney signed for a reported $1.5 million and most likely will replace Greg McKegg as the fourth-line center. Blackwell’s deal is for a reported $1.45 million.
Forwards Anthony Greco and Jonny Brodzinski and defenseman Brandon Crawley, who split last season between the Rangers’ AHL team in Hartford and Maine of the East Coast Hockey League, signed minor-league deals.
The Rangers will want Johnson, a 6-1, 227-pound, left-handed shooter, to provide some of the same veteran wisdom Staal did for the Rangers’ young defense, which currently features two 22-year-old, second-year players in Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, and might very well also include a third 22-year-old in Libor Hajek, or perhaps even a 20-year-old rookie in K’Andre Miller.