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Rangers have limited room to maneuver and tough choices to make

Glen Sather, president and general manager of the

Glen Sather, president and general manager of the Rangers, speaks during Media Day for the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 3, 2014 in Los Angeles. Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

For the Rangers, falling short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final after their shutout loss in Game 7 of the conference finals is a wound that hasn't completely healed.

In the front office, discussions on moving forward have begun. But as free agency and the NHL Draft -- the first offseason opportunities to find remedies -- begin this week and carry through into next month, the Blueshirts have limited room to maneuver.

Fifteen players are under contract -- seven forwards, six defensemen and goalies Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot -- putting the club about $11.5 million under the salary cap, which is projected to be about $71 million.

With 10 of those players having various no-move or no-trade clauses, that's a serious squeeze, which means to sign their key restricted free agents -- center Derek Stepan and wingers Carl Hagelin, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast -- the Rangers must make tough choices.

They cannot afford to keep unrestricted free agent Martin St. Louis, who is 40 years old and carries a $5.6-million cap charge. He wore down late in the season and the playoffs. They almost certainly will trade Talbot, a valuable backup who is being sought by teams in need of a No. 1 netminder. He is due to earn $1.45 million in 2015-16.

And that still might not provide enough flexibility to resign RFAs and add depth, which is why there has been speculation about trading players such as defenseman Kevin Klein, who earns $2.9 million a season.

Stepan, 25, a legitimate two-way center who had 12 points in 19 playoff games after recording 55 points in 68 regular-season games, must be retained. But he likely will double his salary and his cap charge of $3.075 million will soar. Hagelin, one of the fastest skaters in the league, carried a cap hit of $2.2 million and is due to earn closer to $3 million. Young forwards Fast ($696,801) and Miller ($659,104), who made great strides last season, will get raises.

To be sure, the Rangers are pinning some hopes on breakthroughs by youngsters, including 6-3 defenseman Brady Skjei and center Oscar Lindberg, who was 28-28-56 in 75 games in Hartford.

Skjei, 21, a first-round draft pick in 2012, "is gonna push some guys in camp," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' director of player personnel since 2007. Skjei, who played in 23 games in Hartford, including 15 in the AHL playoffs after leaving the University of Minnesota, "is well-developed and going to get even stronger," Clark said.

Lindberg, 23, who had 16 points in 15 playoff games, led the Wolfpack in shots.

Barring a surprise trade during the draft on Friday and Saturday at the BT...T Center in Sunrise, Florida, it will be the third straight year that the Rangers don't have a first-round pick, thanks to trades for St. Louis and Keith Yandle. They also don't have a fifth-rounder and currently hold the 59th, 89th, 119th, 179th and 209th picks.

Other teams have many early picks. The Blue Jackets have six in the first 69 and the Flames have six in the first 83. Last June, the Rangers chose seven players, and they might be able to increase that number this year. "It's tough when you don't have a first-rounder and you sit and watch all that talent go by," Clark said.

The Rangers chose three goaltending prospects in the previous two years (Brandon Halverson, Igor Shestyerkin and Mackenzie Skapski), and Clark said, "You're always looking for centers and D."

Last summer, Derek Dorsett was traded to Vancouver, Brad Richards' multiyear contract was bought out and Anton Stralman was allowed to walk. Brian Boyle wasn't deemed a fit and, like Stralman, left for Tampa Bay.

The Rangers also signed Tanner Glass, took a chance on center Matthew Lombardi (who was playing in Switzerland), signed Lee Stempniak to a one-year, $900,000 deal and acquired depth defenseman Matt Hunwick, who could be re-signed, for $600,000.

A similar roster turnover before the 2015-16 season isn't feasible. Most of the Rangers who ended the season presumably will start the next one with the Blueshirts in October.

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