Rangers general manager Chris Drury always knew he was going to have some work to do, figuring out a fair contract for third-year forward Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, whose rookie deal expires after this season.
But when the Devils locked up their own third-year star, Jack Hughes, on Tuesday, that probably made Drury’s life just a little more difficult.
Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, signed an eight-year, $64 million contract extension Tuesday that carries an average annual value of $8 million. And he is the best comparable to Kakko, seeing that they were by far and away the top two players in that draft, and there was even debate in some circles as to which of them should go first. The Devils had the No. 1 pick and chose Hughes, and the Rangers were happy to take Kakko.
But they can’t possibly pay him the kind of money the Devils paid Hughes. Can they?
Hughes, 20, has been hurt most of this season with New Jersey, and has played only three games, scoring two goals with one assist. He returned in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to San Jose, but did not score in that game. In his three-year career, Hughes has 20 goals and 35 assists in 120 games.
But the Devils are expecting a breakout season from the Florida native this year, clearly.
"We are building something unique and special here, with Jack being a core piece of that," Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said in announcing the signing. "He’s a great player and we think he can be one of the elite players in the league. As he grows and develops and matures as a player, the sky’s the limit for this young man.’’
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden, Kakko had 22 goals and 24 assists in 130 games in his three-year career, including three goals and three assists in 16 games this season. The 20-year-old Finn started the season without a point in his first 10 games, then had six points in the next five, before going scoreless in the Rangers’ last game, Friday in Boston.
Hughes and Kakko will be forever linked because of where they were drafted, and the fact they play in the same media market for teams whose home arenas are so close to each other. Madison Square Garden and Prudential Center, in Newark, where the Devils play, are 11 miles apart.
But it is hard to see how the Rangers could give Kakko a contract right now that is in the same neighborhood as Hughes’. According to CapFriendly, the Rangers have $67.43 million committed in salaries for 2022-23, for 16 players – eight forwards, seven defensemen and No. 1 goalie Igor Shesterkin.
That doesn’t include center Ryan Strome, who would be an unrestricted free agent, and it doesn’t include a backup goaltender. The current No. 2 goalie, Alexandar Georgiev, will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and all three minor league goalies – Keith Kinkaid, Adam Huska and Tyler Wall – will be free agents, with Kinkaid being a UFA and the other two RFAs.
So, with the NHL’s salary cap expected to go up by $1 million next season, to $82.5 million per team, Drury and the Rangers are going to have roughly $15 million to sign Kakko, Strome (or a replacement for Strome) plus a backup goaltender and four bottom-six forwards to fill out the 23-man roster. Kevin Rooney, who’s become a valued fourth-liner and penalty killer, will be a UFA, and Sammy Blais, who is out the rest of the season with a torn ACL, will be an RFA with arbitration rights. The team would probably like to keep one or both of them. It’s hard to see how they can do it if they pay Kakko Jack Hughes money.