During the offseason, the talk is largely about what went right and wrong the previous season, and what changes could potentially be made to the roster. That’s been increasingly a point of discussion given the NHL’s continued application of a flat cap as the league looks to reclaim the lost revenues from the COVID effective seasons beginning late in 2020.
While next Summer promises to see some growth in the number, the reality for the Rangers has been one of carefully threading the needle between the needs of the team, and the space available under the Cap. You can go back to when the Rangers bought out the final year of Henrik Lundqvist‘s contract in 2020, along with the trade of Marc Staal and his final contract season for basically nothing as recent examples.
Pavel Buchnevich‘s trade to St Louis in the first offseason under Chris Drury is, at least in part, another example. Throw in the last couple of seasons where we’ve seen a slew of trade deadline acquisitions depart without much consideration for bringing them back too.
If only the Rangers had a little more salary cap space to make the adjustments that they need to address some of their gaps.
Inevitably attention gets turned to the bigger contracts on the roster, and there are none bigger than left wing Artemi Panarin. Since joining the Rangers for the 2019-20 season he’s put up 341 points in 368 games, along with a further 20 points in 30 post season games – including the play-in in 2020. It’s been a franchise leading total in the regular season, but with the Rangers’ increasing focus on the playoffs, it’s the latter totals that are under more scrutiny.
He started slowly in the playoffs last year, before capping off the first round with the OT winner in Game 7 against the Penguins, and ended up finishing with 16 points in 20 games. More importantly perhaps, is that he didn’t really assert himself in any of the three series, certainly no more than the Kid Line or others like Mika Zibanejad.
In the playoffs this past year, he struggled even more. His 2 assists in 7 games, with the Rangers being shutout in 3 of their 4 losses is not what you want from a player earning $11.643M annually.
The Russian winger looked indecisive with the puck, and averaged just under 4 turnovers per 60 minutes played, to go with a career high 3.8 per 60 during the 2022-23 regular season. A low point in his career as a Ranger.
Was it the loss of Ryan Strome, who’d played the majority of his first three seasons on Broadway as his center? Perhaps it was distractions from his homeland, which did impact him directly back in the 2020-21 season after a false accusation was levelled at him. Maybe it was how former coach Gerard Gallant managed his star player – especially in the latter part of the season where the top two lines failed to become settled down the stretch and even in the playoffs, as the Rangers struggled to find combinations that worked. Whatever the reason, last year measured as his worst as a Blueshirt.
So what are the options?
The most likely of course, is that the Rangers keep him this year – and the next two years – with the hope that Peter Laviolette‘s addition will be able to unlock their star again. Laviolette’s more structured approach might prove to be beneficial to Panarin. With a focus on generating offense and getting the puck up ice, not to mention possessing the puck, it might allow Panarin to play more into his strengths of controlling the puck and the play.
It still relies on Laviolette finding him a center and a right wing that will mesh with this style, and be able to finish the play. These are not insignificant questions to answer, as none of the top three centers on the roster, have yet shown strong chemistry with Panarin, though Vincent Trocheck did have some moments particularly later in the year.
Who is right winger will be is also an open question. While Blake Wheeler may be the initial answer to the question, he’s also a player who himself likes to setup his team mates rather than score, and as we saw when Patrick Kane was added at the trade deadline, having two players who like to carry the puck and/or pass first, can be problematic.
There’s also some potential concern as to whether a left wing lock approach will work with Panarin on the ice. Maybe Laviolette will need to adjust his plans on that approach, if not for the team, then for Panarin in particular.
The second option would be a trade, but it’s hard to see how that would happen. As it stands right now, Panarin has shared that he’s very happy in New York, and has no intention of agreeing to waive his No Move Clause. In addition, it would probably be hard to find a partner to make a deal. We’re seeing this play out with Erik Karlsson and the Sharks right now, with a limited market and terms favoring the buyer rather than the seller. While the Sharks will likely get a couple of good assets in exchange for the Swede, they’ll also have to retain a significant amount of salary in order to do so.
Would moving Panarin, but retaining $5.8M of dead cap space really help the Rangers as much as keeping him around and trying to get him going? It’s a difficult question to answer at this point, but one that does carry some constraints of shortening your available Cap space simply to remove Panarin from the roster.
At this point it’s difficult to foresee how a trade of Panarin will be possible, particularly this season.
What about a buy-out I hear you ask? Well, in this case it’s basically a non-starter. Panarin’s contract is structured in such a way, that the Rangers would save only pennies on the dollar. Per CapFriendly and their Buyout Calculator, the Rangers would save only $666K per year on the remaining years of the contract, while carrying an almost $11M cap number.
The bottom line is that the Rangers are “stuck” with Panarin for the remaining term of his contract. There best option will be to try to find a way to get him going, particularly in the playoffs. Whether it’ll be successful or not remains to be seen, but with no real other options available, it’s really the only thing they can do.