CHICAGO — For the first time since 2012 — when the Rangers selected defenseman Brady Skjei, who was voted to the NHL’s All-Rookie team on Wednesday — the Rangers have a first-round pick in the NHL Draft.
The expectation is that they’ll use it.
But a lot of other changes could be made starting Friday night, when the draft begins at United Center, and after July 1, when the free-agent market opens, as general manager Jeff Gorton continues the retooling of the Rangers.
Trades certainly are possible. Cam Talbot and Carl Hagelin were dealt at previous drafts, and Antti Raanta was acquired from Chicago two years ago. But whether Gorton can land a righthanded defenseman to play with captain Ryan McDonagh on the first pair, which could cost him center Derek Stepan in a swap, is very much in question.
The buzz here continues to link the Rangers to potential trade partners such as Arizona, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Florida and Carolina, as well as the expansion Golden Knights, who have a surplus of defensemen. But would any of them be worth shipping out Stepan, who is a legitimate No. 1 center but carries a $6.5-million annual cap charge with a no-trade clause set to kick in on July 1?
If Gorton is unable to acquire a targeted defenseman in a swap, he still has two unrestricted free agents in mind: Brendan Smith, who was acquired from the Red Wings at the trade deadline and said he enjoyed his brief time in New York, and the Capitals’ Kevin Shattenkirk, who likely will seek a long-term contract worth more than $6 million annually.
The Rangers currently are about $13.3 million under the new salary-cap ceiling of $75 million, according to capfriendly.com, including the cap hit from Dan Girardi’s buyout, but still need to sign restricted free agents Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast. Defenseman Kevin Klein ($2.9-million cap charge) is considering retirement with one year left on his contract. He might play in Europe next season.
Perhaps a prospect such as Alexei Bereglazov or Neal Pionk can make the cut as an extra defenseman.
The Rangers have five selections, starting with the 21st overall (Skjei was 28th). They have no second- or third-rounders, just the 102nd, 145th, 157th and 207th picks. If that doesn’t change via trades, it will be the fewest the franchise has had since 2013, when there were five.
With goaltending prospects Igor Shestyorkin (St. Petersburg, KHL), Adam Huska (University of Connecticut) and Tyler Wall (University of Mass achusetts-Lowell) in the fold, the Rangers will pass on netminders such as Jake Oettinger (Boston University) and target forwards or defensemen.
As many as 10 centers might be off the board by the time the Rangers choose, and heralded defensemen (Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Timothy Liljegren) will be gone as well.
Among the possibilities with the 21st pick: Ryan Poehling, a U.S.-born center from St. Cloud State; Erik Brannstrom, a fast-rising Swedish defenseman; Kristian Vesalainen, a power forward from Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League; Klim Kostin, a highly touted Russian forward; Eeli Tolvanen, a small but dynamic scorer, and defenseman Cal Foote, son of former Colorado defenseman Adam Foote.
The Rangers have the 21st pick in the first round of Friday’s NHL draft. Here are a few players they could be targeting:
Ryan Poehling, center, St. Cloud State
The Rangers have a fondness for American players, from Ryan McDonagh to Brady Skjei to Jimmy Vesey. Poehling (6-2, 183) is from Lakeville, Minn. and was the youngest player in the NCAA last season — he skipped his senior year in high school. He’s poised, has a long, powerful stride, and has proven to be clutch in big moments against his peers. In 11 games for Team USA’s Under-18 team in international tournaments he went 7-4-11.
Erik Brannstrom, defenseman, HV71, Swedish Elite League
Has been quietly climbing in various rankings, after posting 1.21 points per game in Sweden’s U-20 junior hockey league. In his draft year, Erik Karlsson scored 0.97 points per game. His size (5-10, 179) lends to comparisons to Boston’s Torey Krug or Anaheim’s Sami Vantanen. While dynamic offensively, there are some questions about the lefthander’s ability to play in his own zone against larger, stronger NHLers.
Kristian Vesalainen, winger, Frolunda, Swedish Elite League
Born in Helsinki, this budding power forward (6-3, 209) can play either side and began the season as a consensus top 10-pick, but slid in the rankings. That is, until the under-18 world championships, when he scored six goals and 13 points in seven games. At 17, he played very few minutes with an older club. Has all the tools, but still considered raw. He can be dangerous, with a quick release and a high-tempo, versatile game.