Without making a deal before Saturday’s afternoon trade freeze went into effect, the Rangers submitted a protection list of 11 players to the NHL and NHLPA for the expansion draft that will be formally revealed — along with those of 29 other teams — at 10 a.m. Sunday.
The lists of protected players, and players made available for the Vegas Golden Knights, were kept close to the vest, but it’s logical that the Rangers chose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, rather than eight skaters and a goalie. They had to protect three players with no-movement clauses — Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash and Marc Staal.
The Rangers were expected to hang onto captain Ryan McDonagh, Mika Zibanejad, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and another defenseman, likely Nick Holden, with a year left at $1.6 million, or unrestricted free agent Brendan Smith, in order to keep his rights while trying to sign him. Players with entry-level contracts were exempt such as Brady Skjei, Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey.
Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast appear to be the consensus choices as the top candidates to be selected by the Golden Knights by Wednesday. Unless there’s a side deal with Vegas general manager George McPhee before then, the Rangers will lose one of them under the rules. Trades can resume on Thursday, the day before the NHL draft in Chicago.
Currently, the Rangers had nine returning forwards from 2016-17 in the fold, a handful of defensemen and their No. 1 goalie when the dust settled Saturday. If Raanta isn’t selected by Vegas, then the Blueshirts goaltending duo is set. If he is, the search is on for a backup.
The issue remaining is on defense: McDonagh, Skjei, Holden, Staal, Kevin Klein and Steven Kampfer are under contract. Dan Girardi was bought out and chose not to go on waivers, and the Rangers want to add a young, top-pair blueliner, preferably a righty. Saturday also was a deadline for a moratorium on free-agent signings, so the wooing of Smith, who was acquired from Detroit for two draft picks in late February, will have to wait until at least Thursday.
Looking ahead, two new defense prospects also will be under the microscope in the annual development camp, which begins June 26, and then training camp: Russian Alexei Bereglazov, 23, a 6-4 lefty who has played for three seasons in the KHL, and righty Neal Pionk, 21, out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.