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Rangers now may go to salary arbitration as a way to open a new buyout window

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton looks on at

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton looks on at a press conference to introduce John Davidson at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Jeff Gorton is enjoying a fabulous summer so far, but the Rangers’ general manager still has plenty of items still remaining on his offseason to-do list, and that list is likely to include heading to arbitration with one or more of the Blueshirts’ restricted free agents.

When Gorton landed forward Artemi Panarin, the biggest fish in the NHL’s free agent pond, with a seven-year, $81.5 million contract on Monday, it was his latest and biggest score of an offseason that has seen him upgrade the Rangers’ roster by trading for stud defenseman Jacob Trouba, taking Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko with No. 2 pick in the NHL draft, signing 2018 first round pick Vitali Kravtsov, and trading for and signing defenseman Adam Fox, one of the top players in the NCAA this past season at Harvard.

But adding Panarin’s $11.64 million cap hit to the payroll leaves the Rangers with roughly $8 million available under their salary cap, and just about all of that will be needed to sign Trouba, a restricted free agent who scored eight goals and 50 points last season for Winnipeg.

So, in order to be able to sign the Rangers’ remaining RFAs, Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Lemieux, Gorton is going to have to offload some salary to open up some space under the cap. And one way to do that is for one or more of the team’s arbitration-eligible RFAs — Trouba, Buchnevich and Vinni Lettieri — files for arbitration.

Because if that happens, it will trigger a second buyout window, which would then allow the Rangers to buy out either Kevin Shattenkirk or Brendan Smith (or both) to create the cap space they need to bring everyone else back.

And that is what is likely to happen.

Gorton opted not to buy anyone out during the regular buyout window, which opened on June 15 and closed on Sunday June 30. At the time, he wasn’t sure he would get Panarin, and if he wasn’t able to, he wouldn’t need the cap space buying out Shattenkirk and/or Smith would provide. And he always knew he’d have the arbitration-buyout option available to him.

Buying out Shattenkirk, who has two years left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $6.65 million, would save the Rangers $5.16 million on their cap this season. Buying out Smith, who has two years left at $4.35 million per, would save $3.3 million this season. Both defensemen have underperformed on the four-year deals they signed in 2017, and removing them from the payroll would be the fastest way to clear $8 million in cap space this season.

The savings would be much less next season, but forwards Chris Kreider, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Strome, Matt Beleskey and Jesper Fast are entering the final year of their contracts, so that’s a lot of salary that potentially would be coming off the books next summer.

Without the buyouts, Gorton’s only other option to create salary cap space would be to trade away multiple players. Kreider’s name has been out there for months as a player who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and who will likely will be signed to a contract extension or traded this summer.

But he is scheduled to earn $4.625 million this season, so dealing him likely wouldn’t be enough to create enough space. Gorton would have to find a way to trade both Kreider and Namestnikov ($4 million) to clear the same $8 million. And he’d have to do that without taking any salary back in return.

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