When the NHL’s free agency period opens at noon on Friday, it won’t look anything like it did a year ago for the Rangers.
"Certainly we're going to be looking to see what's going to happen,’’ general manager Jeff Gorton said. "I think we have some players we have identified that could help us and, you know, we'll look. We'll talk to those people at the right time and we'll go from there.
"I don't think it'll be like last year, that's for sure.’’
Last year, the Rangers landed the biggest prize in the 2019 free agent class when they signed forward Artemi Panarin, whom they viewed as the perfect player to lead them out of their two-year rebuild. Panarin produced in a big way, scoring a team-leading 95 points and finishing third in the race for the Hart Trophy.
But with No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad having raised his game to another level last season, and with the selection Tuesday of forward Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 pick overall in the 2020 draft, the Rangers don’t need to make the kind of free agent splash they did a year ago.
This year, much of Gorton’s focus will be on re-signing his own team’s free agents. Defenseman Tony DeAngelo, goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, and forwards Ryan Strome, Brendan Lemieux and Phillip DiGiuseppe are restricted free agents with arbitration rights, and forward Jesper Fast is an unrestricted free agent. Aside from that group, Gorton will be looking to add a low-cost, veteran defenseman after trading away Marc Staal. And perhaps he’ll want a physical winger to play on the bottom two lines.
There’s also a chance management decides re-signing Strome will cost too much, and if so, the Rangers then would be on the lookout for a second-line center to play behind Zibanejad. In his post-draft Zoom call with reporters Wednesday, Gorton admitted he waited until the last minute to give Strome a qualifying offer to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent in part because the Rangers were talking to other teams about a possible trade.
The top free agent names available – St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and Arizona forward Taylor Hall – are not likely on the Rangers’ shopping list. But COVID-19 may change things for free agents and teams. With the salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million for the next two seasons, at least, and with the uncertainty of whether NHL arenas will be able to have fans in them when the next season begins, salaries – and contract lengths– could be coming down.
"I think it's obvious there's a strain on teams,’’ Gorton said. "When you go forward and you're projecting the cap numbers . . . you don't just do it a year at a time. You're doing a 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-year plan. Nobody was planning for COVID, and what's happening. So it's put a lot of strain on the market. It'll be interesting to see what it's like in free agency and what the effect is.’’
The Rangers, after trading Staal and buying out franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist, are more than $23 million under the cap, according to CapFriendly. And though they do have to leave room under the cap to accommodate reachable player bonuses, they still may be able to squeeze in a free agent who is willing to take less money than he might have last year.
RANGERS' POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT TARGETS
1. Patrick Maroon, LW/RW. The Rangers want tougher players, who are harder to play against, and this guy is that, for sure. He had nine goals and 71 penalty minutes in 64 games this season for Tampa Bay, and 10 goals and 64 PIMs in 74 games last season for St. Louis. And, by the way, he was a Stanley Cup champion in each of those seasons. Considering he played for $900,000 this season, even with a raise from that number, he still should be affordable.
2. Jack Johnson, D. The 33-year-old was just bought out by the Penguins, and he’d give the Rangers a lot of the same things they got from Marc Staal, who they traded to Detroit. Johnson is the same age as Staal, and was taken in the same draft (He was the No. 3 pick overall in 2005, while Staal was 12th) and he’d come cheaply. If the Rangers have three 22-year-olds (Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek) in their top six or seven D, it might be nice to have a 14-year veteran in there with them.
3. Mikael Granlund, C. This one would depend on what the Rangers decide to do with Ryan Strome. If they keep him, they don’t need a second line center. But if they decide to move on, Granlund, who had 17 goals and 30 points this season, would be interesting. He had some nice years for Minnesota, slipped somewhat in Nashville. But at 28, he could be poised for a bounce back with his next team. He’s a playmaker, and he’s Finnish. How nice would it be for Kaapo Kakko to have a countryman in the locker room?