The Rangers have salary cap space — at least $15.6 million to spend on signing two of their own regular players and a few unrestricted free agents.
How general manager Jeff Gorton decides to divide the dough will signal his intentions for this season and beyond.
“We need to move forward, a little rebuild on the fly and change the look of our team,” Gorton said at the NHL draft last Sunday.
So as the free-agent market opens on Saturday, the question is whether he believes the Blueshirts — in front of 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist — can be a Stanley Cup contender during the next two years by mixing in some quality veterans with a young core, or whether he will rely on younger players this season to restructure for the long run.
It’s not all up to Gorton. With a lean market for top players, a handful of teams apparently have their eyes on the unrestricted pack, and that will drive prices higher.
Although the Rangers addressed one issue — signing defenseman Brendan Smith to a four-year contract extension reportedly worth $17.4 million — they are still talking with Mika Zibanejad, who currently assumes the No. 1 center’s role with the trade of Derek Stepan to Arizona, and right wing Jesper Fast. It is widely expected that those deals will get done.
But the Blueshirts, who may have an extra $2.9 million in cap space if defenseman Kevin Klein decides to retire or perhaps play in Europe, could still use a top-four defenseman, at least one third- or fourth-line center, and a backup goaltender.
Kevin Shattenkirk, the top defenseman available, is the swing player that will determine the rest of the roster. The Rangers are likely hesitant to pay full price — which could reach $7 million per season — and hope that the New Rochelle native will take a hometown discount. The U.S. Olympian, 28, would spark the power play and should put up 50 points.
If Shattenkirk goes elsewhere, the Rangers could still try to trade for a defenseman such as Carolina’s Justin Faulk or settle for a far less productive and expensive blueliner — righties Michael Stone or Cody Franson, for example.
At center, Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes are assured of spots. There are quality centers available, but will they be worth the price? Minnesota’s Martin Hanzal, San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino will require pricey multi-year deals and appear to have a lot of options.
The Blue Jackets’ Sam Gagner, 27, could be a perfectly adequate third-line center, even if he didn’t generate last season’s career-high 50 points, including 18 on the power play. Would the Blueshirts be interested in former Ranger Brian Boyle as a fourth line pivot? Or try prospect Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, who was in Hartford last year?
A long shot at forward on a short deal? Sharks winger Patrick Marleau, 37, still has the touch, with 27 goals last season.
Lundqvist’s backup, who will be called upon to start 20-25 games, doesn’t have to be expensive with a one or two-year contract. For maybe a $1 million there is Anders Nilsson, a former Islander, who won 10 games for the middling Sabres last season and posted a 2.67 GAA and .923 save percentage. Another possibility is Antti Niemi, 33, bought out by the Dallas Stars, who has played in 423 games. Former Ranger Chad Johnson is a maybe.