It has taken nine months of posturing and several weeks of hard negotiating, but it appears that a new NHL CBA is just around the corner. Though much is yet to be revealed, the one thing that is apparent is that the NHL will likely start the 2005-06 season with a salary cap of around 36-38 million . The introduction of a salary cap will greatly change the NHL landscape, creating greater player turnover, reducing the number of Europeans in the league and providing the third and fourth liners of the league ample opportunity to switch teams from year to year. Teams who take on long term contracts and defer payments will go through long periods of mediocrity as they deal with the bad decisions of the past, while those organizations who take gambles by letting fan favorites go in order to stay under the cap will be chastised and analyzed like never before. For the New York Rangers, the new structure presents a substantial challenge.
Already mired in a seven year slump highlighted by poor personnel decision making both in terms of players and coaches, the Rangers must now find a way to build a team while avoiding getting mired in undesirable contracts and salary cap restrictions. Players will be harder to attract to New York without the premiums previously offered, and while I have the utmost respect for Tom Renney, there are probably few players out there who will be attracted by the opportunity to play under him as a coach. In Europe, prospects like Petr Prucha, Jarkko Immonen and Jan Marek will be just a little harder to attract to North America, while others like Maxim Kondratiev may find they can make more money in their homeland in a place where they’re familiar with the language and culture. The added pressure from the New York media and fans for instant success and loyalty to players past their prime will just add to the difficulties faced by Glen Sather going forward.
Perhaps the prime example of how these challenges can overwhelm a franchise is the Rangers NBA counterpart the New York Knicks. Under the Dolans supervision the Knicks have continued to look for the quick fix with little regard for the future. In the process they have continued adding contracts and durations, making it progressively more difficult to undo what has been done. While the Rangers under Glen Sather have many parallels, they now face the prospect of continuing with the added burden of a salary cap at about half the value of the pre-lockout team salary.
So what can be done?
The first order of business is to clear some of the bigger contracts while there is no impact to the salary cap. The Rangers have just four large contracts on their books going into the 2005-06 season, and New York needs to take advantage of the opportunity to pay some of these players off. The most obvious candidate is Bobby Holik, a third line center who is scheduled to make $6.6 million for each of the next two years. Holik has primarily been used as an offensive player, contributing 16 and 25 goals respectively in the two years he has been with the Rangers. He seldom plays on the penalty kill and had a disappointing first season after turning up to camp out of shape and suffering a hip injury early in the season. With the number of free agents expected to be on the market, there are no doubt better value options.
Despite having never played a game, Michael Nylander should also be considered for a buy out. Scheduled to make $2.3 million per year after the rollback for the next two years (and an option for a third year), Nylander’s contract is more about length than cost. The Swedish forward has been known to be inconsistent and the Rangers will have little opportunity going forward to trade him if things don’t work out. Again there may be better alternatives out there.
Darius Kasparaitis had a disappointing first year with the Rangers and finally gained some consistently after moving to the third defensive pairing. The rugged blueliner is scheduled to make around $3.3 million for each of the next three seasons and would have to take on an increased role to justify the value of his contract. Ideally it would be great to keep Kasparaitis around he has shown that he is a good role model and is prepared to work hard, but under the new salary structure the value is much harder to justify.
The final player with a substantial contract is Jaromir Jagr who is scheduled to earn $8.4 million a year for the next three years with an option for a fourth year. Under normal circumstances this would be a no-brainer and it would be in the interest of the Rangers to buy out his contract, but with the Washington Capitals contributing part of the salary (up to $5 million/year if the deal was not calculated as a percentage) New York could find themselves with perhaps the best value player in the league. There still remains questions about how that money might be credited towards the salary cap, and it may very well prove to be financially prudent for New York to divest themselves of his contract.
With the buy outs determined, the attention will turn to the free agent market. The Rangers could be looking for as many as 10-12 roster spots to fill from the free agent market depending on whose services are retained. It is unlikely that the Rangers will be competitive this coming season, and therefore the focus should be on short term contracts for players who either have some upside or can contribute in many situations on the ice. There is no need to go looking for the Tkachuks, Nolans and Modanos of the league at this stage, those are the types of players you bring in when you already have a core of players and you want to go to the next level.
In terms of the NHL Entry Draft, it may be time for the Rangers to take a shot at landing a big name. Over the past year or two New York has stocked up on middle tier prospects, but still lack the top end blue chippers that the team will need going forward. Sidney Crosby remains a long shot (somewhere in the realm of 1 in 16 from released reports), but there are several other players who would be useful additions to the team. With three second round picks in the 2005 draft, the Rangers also may have the opportunity to move up to maybe get another first round pick. At the very least they should be protected against a serpentine draft (where the 2nd round reverses order) by having additional second round picks from Toronto and Philadelphia. In the later rounds the Rangers are probably better served by drafting North American players, or at least Europeans who have indicated they want to come over. With a greater cap on entry level contracts expected in the new CBA, as well as higher comparative salaries from some of the European leagues, it will be harder to entice these players to play in the NHL going forward.
The biggest question mark perhaps remains the Rangers leadership and the direction they are willing to commit to. Under Sather there has been little to cheer about, but his retention as General Manager may buy the team a little breathing room to begin the rebuilding process and avoid the inevitable churn than a new GM would bring as they seek to replicate their successes from their previous jobs. Tom Renney’s increased profile also helps the team adjust to the demands of the modern NHL. Renney appears more in touch with the current trends for developing players and taking a systematic approach to building a team than either Maloney or Sather have demonstrated to date. While it remains to be seen how effective he will be as a coach, his contribution to the club has seen significant changes under Sather. Finally Sather’s ability to manage to a small budget (as he did in Edmonton) and his willingness to part with players (except for Mark Messier) will help the team going forward. There is not a lot of room for sentimentality under the proposed system and it will no doubt take the media and fans some time to adjust to the changes.
Over all the Rangers must show patience going into the 2005-06 season. The temptation will once again be there to go for the quick fix, and with the signing of Michael Nylander last summer to a three year contract (with a fourth year option) they have demonstrated that they are still looking to cut corners. The organization must stay the course, focus on shorter term contracts and continue to build the team to ensure the longer term success of the franchise.