Paul Mara

No Such Thing As A ‘Free’ Agent

In a way it’s ironic that the NHL and NHLPA use the terms “Free” Agency. Judging by some of the projected offers for the few marquee players on offer, they’re about as far afield from that designator as you can be and still sign a valid contract. Tampa Bay (complete with new ownership) has gotten the silly season well and truly under way, signing the moderately successful Ryan Malone to an impressive seven year deal, worth around $4.4M per year.

Marian Hossa (also part of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup Finalist team), has reportedly turned down a five to six year deal worth $7M per year, because he thinks he can get $8M on the open market. Sharks (and former Sabres) defenseman Brian Campbell is looking at a potential $7M or so per year, despite having scored more than eight goals only once in his eight seasons in the NHL.

So it’s with great trepidation that we approach the 2008 free agency deadline, and look at whom the Rangers may be bidding adieu to.

Jaromir Jagr
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The Rangers’ captain is about to become a UFA for the first time in his career, and is not only ready to solicit offers from the rest of the NHL, but has already received a competitive offer to join Avangard Omsk in the new Continental Hockey League (KHL).

Jagr is looking for a team that will make him their leader, which will no doubt cut down the suitors. He’s also looking to be paid top dollar for a two year contract, which puts whomever signs him in a difficult position. Even if Jagr was not to play in his second season, whatever money he is owed would count towards the cap. It’s one of those nifty little things they added in the last CBA to prevent teams from giving 35+ year olds extra “years” to their contracts.

For the Rangers in 2007-08, he lead the team in points (71), was tied for the lead in goals (25) and power play points (29) and was second in assists (46). While not always effective in the regular season, Jagr closed out the year with a strong performance in the post season.

While there are many who would like to see Jagr move on, and the Rangers to head another direction, the challenge will be finding an adequate replacement. The only free agent who comes even close in terms of production, is Marian Hossa (brother of former Ranger Marcel Hossa). Hossa won’t be cheap, and he is certainly no sure fire offensive leader.

Other alternatives include attempting to sign an RFA to an offer sheet (which would cos the team four first round picks for a high profile player), look for a trade, or go with second tier options such as Michael Ryder and hope others can pick up the slack.

The challenge to re-signing Jagr is a purely a financial one from the Rangers perspective. Sather is believed to have a one year $6M deal on the table, which is $1.7M less than Scott Gomez‘s team high salary, and is one year shorter than what Jagr is reportedly looking for. The Rangers are also competing with the newly formed Continental Hockey League (KHL) which have reportedly given Jagr a three year offer for comparable money (though less tax burden).

In more recent days we’ve seen talk of bringing in a more compatible center for Jagr, in particular Mats Sundin. No doubt that would be a positive move in the eyes of Jagr, but would it be enough, and what impact would it have on the Rangers longer term.

Odds of Jagr coming back to the Rangers: 50%

Brendan Shanahan
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Shanahan had his slowest start to the season since his formative years in the NHL, suffered a knee injury midway through, and finished with a whimper yet still managed to finished third on the team in goals and second in power play goals.

At 39 years of age, there’s plenty of questions as to whether Shanahan should return, and if he is to return what the circumstances would be. In 2007-08, the Rangers signed Shanahan to a $5.3M deal, of which $2.8M was in deferrable bonus money (another CBA addition for players 35+ signed to one year contracts).

When asked about his situation, Sather said Shanahan will have to wait, perhaps alluding to the fact that he wants to look elsewhere first. If Jagr is resigned, then there’ll be less money to sign Shanahan, and unless the veteran is willing to take a smaller contract, perhaps with more challenging bonuses (or the Rangers fail to sign Jagr or Hossa), then the chances of him coming back are probably low.

Odds of Shanahan coming back to the Rangers: 25%

Sean Avery
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While Jagr and Shanahan obviously had a direct bearing on the Rangers’ offense last year, the impact of Sean Avery on the team’s success is perhaps a little more subtle. Okay, so subtle is not a word that you would use to describe Avery on, or for that matter off the ice. Fresh from a minimum wage internship at Vogue, Avery is set to cash in on his celebrity and go to the highest bidder.

The ever entertaining (if he’s on your team) winger, has evolved into a credible (although not always reliable) scoring threat, making a name for himself with some big goals, and a creative approach to the game. Many will point to the record of the Rangers with him in the line-up (50-23-13, 24-35-9 without) as reason enough, but the edge that he brings is undoubtedly the thing that the fans crave.

Avery was one of just a few players in the league, that are a complete package. He has the ability to score goals, play against almost any opposition and perhaps most importantly, get key people off their game. Can Avery’s act last? That is perhaps the question that Glen Sather is asking. In both the second round loss to Buffalo last year, and again to the Penguins this year, the opposition largely ignored the agitator, rendering him basically ineffective.

The smallish forward (5-9 190lbs) also attracts more than his fair share of hits and cheap shots, and if the past is anything to go by, players like this tend to have a shorter shelf life.

No doubt one of the reasons he’s trying to cash in now, this could be the last major pay day opportunity that he gets, and no one should begrudge him that.

The question however remains, can the Rangers afford him? If the intent is to pursue players like Campbell and Hossa (or even Jagr), then it’s tougher to make the case. Then there’s the question of how effective Avery would be without a legitimate first line to take the brunt of the opposition’s best defenders.

Is he really worth a four year deal for $4M+? Judging by the market conditions currently, there’s no doubt he is. Is it the right thing for the Rangers? Harder to determine at this stage, but with big contracts to Scott GomezChris Drury and Henrik Lundqvist already on the books long term, there’s less room for maneuvering.

Odds of Avery coming back to the Rangers: 20%

Martin Straka
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Straka has his worst season since joing the Rangers after the lockout. The veteran forward managed just 14 goals, struggled early with injuries, and never got on track with his scoring. While he’s a game competitor, there’s serious questions about his relative effectiveness going forward, particularly if the Rangers don’t bring back Jagr.

Despite signing a deal to manage and play for Plzen in the Czech Extraliga, the door remains open for Straka to return to the NHL if there’s an offer on the table. In his recent press conference, Jagr mentioned that he thinks his teammate wants another year on Broadway, and depending on the situation, that offer might be there.

In a market that is distinctly short on quality wingers, Straka could find himself a desirable commodity. His ability to play all three forward positions (though he lacks in the faceoff circle) along with both power play and penalty kill experience, means he could still be a creditable supporting player.

If he does come back, then he’ll likely have to sign on for a contract with deferrable bonuses, and it perhaps will not be Sather’s first choice.

Odds of Straka coming back to the Rangers: 33%

Michal Rozsival
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Michal Rozsival picked the perfect season to have a strong season. The 29 year old defender set a career high for goals (13) and was just two points shy of his career high in points (40) set just the season before.

In his time with the Rangers, Rozsival has shaken off any injury concerns and has in fact perhaps established himself as one of the most durable defenders in the league (he’s missed just four games in the last three seasons) despite taking punishment in the form of high sticks and questionable hits on an almost nightly basis.

His offensive contributions stand him in good stead for a market that is decidedly short, not only on blueliners, but on those who can also contribute on the offensive side of the puck. He lead the team in ice time, and was the point leader for defensemen on the team, though perhaps that is not overly surprising given the Rangers’ PP configuration. Still 25 or so minutes a night is not always easy to replace.

Whether Rozsival or the Rangers decided to move a different direction, is not certain, but he’s clearly in for a substantial increase from his current salary of $2.1M.

Even with all his credentials, it’s clear the Rangers are interested in improving their capability from the blueline, particularly on the power play. Rumors surfaced several weeks ago that the Rangers would be in the mix for Brian Campbell, who reportedly wants to return to the East to be closer to his family.

Given the silence from the Rangers to date, it seems indeed credible that they’ll take a run at the defender who is likely to command the highest price, or maybe even Mark Streit, projected to come in at around the same sort of money that Rozsival will likely earn.

Odds of Rozsival coming back to the Rangers: 10%

Paul Mara
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It seems almost certain that Paul Mara will be leaving the Rangers. The veteran defender never really clicked on Broadway, and his one goal in 61 appearances certainly didn’t justify his $3M in salary.

The Rangers will likely look to the free agent market for a relatively cheap veteran, or perhaps even an upgrade like Brooks Orpik, but it will depend on how other conversations go.

Odds of Mara coming back to the Rangers: 1%

Marek Malik
42GP 2-8-10 48PIM
Perhaps “Malik” is Czech for “Maligned”, because everything fell apart for the lanky Czech defender last season. Initially upset with being rotated out of the line-up to give Jason Strudwick some playing time, Malik quickly fell out of favor with management, and on a couple of occasions reacted personally to his benching.

Even before the personal issues, Malik’s chances of returning were low. Obviously struggling with speedier opponents, Malik reacted poorly to being booed by the MSG crowd, and turned in some of his poorest performances since joining the team in 2005-06.

In terms of a replacement, the Rangers will again likely look to the free agency market for a steady veteran to support what is still a relatively young blueline corps.

Odds of Malik coming back to the Rangers: 1%

Stephen Valiquette
13GP 5-3-3 2.19 .916
Just three years ago it looked like Valiquette’s time had run out. Playing in Russia, Valiquette had failed to make an impression with three separate NHL teams, and was largely offered a contract in 2006-07 based on his previous performances in Hartford.

In what could only be termed a breakout year for the veteran goaltender, Valiquette finally got the chance to establish himself as a viable option to backup in the NHL. This year he more than doubled his NHL appearances (12 to 25), recorded his first and second NHL career shutouts (both against Philadelphia) and finished with a better save percentage and goals against average than Henrik Lundqvist.

As with Rozsival, it’s not clear whether the Rangers, or the player elected to take this to free agency, but if it was indeed Valiquette’s choice, there’s no way you can fault his reasoning. At 30 years old, he’s in a position to make a little bit of money and all power to him.

If he does indeed leave the Rangers, it perhaps brings up as big a questiona as any in terms of who will replace him. With Al Montoya traded, and David LeNeveu seemingly unlikely to be resigned, the Rangers will only have Chris Holt‘s 10 minutes of action a couple of years ago backing up Henrik Lundqvist.

Clearly the Rangers will be looking to add someone to the mix, and there are a number of options out there that will probably come at a relatively cheap price. Players like David Aebischer, Johan Holmqvist, Chritobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Ty Conklin, Alex Auld, Patrick Lalime, Olaf Kolzig and John Grahame headline a relatively deep field of unrestricted free agents.

Odds of Valiquette coming back to the Rangers: 50%

Of the remaining free agents with NHL experience, the Rangers will finally officially bid adieu to Darius Kasparaits. The Lithuanian native played out last season in the RSL, and perhaps still entertains the thought of getting one last NHL contract. Josh Gratton and David LeNeveu, both acquired in the Al Montoya deal have qualified for Group VI – Unrestricted Free Agency and will be free tomorrow to shop their services, while Jason Strudwick will likely be looking at offers from Europe if nothing materializes on the NHL front.

Whatever happens tomorrow and the rest of this Summer, it’s clear Glen Sather has a lot of work to do to put a team together for the fall. At this stage there’s potential to completely reshape the team, the question is what form that will take.

The UFA market is undoubtedly overpriced and filled with risky propositions, but has the advantage of only taking money (and cap space) to participate. The more difficult decisions will be around who to keep and who to trade, because ultimately that might be the only way that Sather will be able to maintain his budget, and still ice a competitive team.

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