If you look at the team that lost 0-3 in the qualifying round back in August, you would see just a handful of changes. Gone are the two longest tenured Rangers in Henrik Lundqvist (buy-out) and Marc Staal (trade), as well as the fourth longest in Jesper Fast (free agency).
Also moving on are Greg McKegg and Micheal Haley, as well as depth players Cristoval Nieves, Steve Fogarty, Daniel O’Regan and Matt Beleskey – the latter two having played last season entirely in the AHL. In addition the Rangers parted ways with troubled prospect Lias Andersson.
Most of the moves were of course driven by Salary Cap issues, with the Rangers carrying $13M of dead cap space this year courtesy of buy-outs to Lundqvist, Kevin Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi and Ryan Spooner – via Vancouver.
With all the young players on the roster, including 1st overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, the team is also carrying another $3.9M in bonus overages as a result of all the performance bonuses the team will be due to pay out.
That’s not to say the Rangers didn’t try to upgrade. They held off on qualifying Ryan Strome, finally extending an offer just hours before the deadline, and then took the arbitration conversation deep with him, as well as Brendan Lemieux – signed yesterday to a two year deal.
In the case of Strome in particular, it’s clear he’s not an ideal option, but with limited cap room available and a relatively proven commodity, the team settled on bringing him back on a two year term that will take him to UFA status.
As for the team itself, well it’s hard to see the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Tony DeAngelo being able to perform and the same level as they did last year. That’s not to say they won’t produce, it’s just difficult to outperform what was already career-year level stuff last season. Which means the team is relying on improvement from the rest of the roster.
More particularly, it means that veterans like Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba will need to step up, along with the likes of Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden and the young defensive pairing of Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox. In net, the Rangers will also be expecting Igor Shesterkin to continue to improve – and stay healthy.
There’s also Alexis Lafreniere who is joining the party, and perhaps too we’ll see Vitali Karvtsov, K’Andre Miller and Morgan Barron make their cases, but it’s harder to expect those guys to step in and make a difference from day one.
On the free agency front, it would seem Jack Johnson has a good shot at making it to the opening night roster, and Kevin Rooney is probably the most likely to get a look, especially given his speed and defensive abilities. Colin Blackwell might also put some pressure on the fourth line, but he along with Phillip Di Giuseppe, Jonny Brodzinski and Anthony Greco all seem more destined for the AHL. The Rangers may elect to keep Anthony Bitetto as a 7th defender, but that will likely come down to whether someone like Tarmo Reunanen, Libor Hajek, Miller or perhaps even Matthew Robertson make a strong enough case to push for a starting role.
Of course, all this presupposes that there will be a season. The NHL is rumored to be aiming for a January 1st start, but with no certainy yet on the date, it would seem that could be very much subject to change.