As we draw closer and closer to the expansion draft, entry draft and free agency, Rangers fans have begun pontificating strategies to improve the Blueshirts.
Unfortunately, there are a number of realities that may put a monkey wrench in even the best laid plans.
Here’s some reality checks for Rangers fans as we head into the offseason abyss.
Upgrading The Defense Won’t Be Easy
While there’s not much Rangers nation agrees about these days, one thing we can all unite behind is the Rangers need to upgrade their defense. However, while it’s fairly easy to identify the issues, coming up with an actual remedy will prove to be much more difficult.
Obviously, the Rangers priorities are to sign Kevin Shattenkirk and re-sign Brendan Smith, but unless they’re able to free up cap space and roster spots, this scenario is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Sure, Dan Girardi had a bit of a renaissance this past postseason, but it wasn’t nearly enough to fool even the most grit-centric GM into thinking the remaining three years at $5.5M per for a defenseman on the rapid decline is worth even the most insignificant asset. Meanwhile, any trade value Marc Staal may have had going into the postseason pretty much went up in the flames.
Despite whatever sweeteners you add to a deal for Staal or Girardi, the grim reality of their contracts remain. Even if the Rangers could find a team to swap salary dumps with, unless the terms match, I don’t see how a deal gets done. Oh, and Staal has a no trade clause while Girardi has a limited no trade clause. A buyout of one or both is the only solution, but the Rangers have been reluctant to explore that avenue with either of their veteran defensemen to this point, so there’s no guarantee it’s even an option.
Meanwhile, it’s doubtful the Kevin Klein market is very bullish after not being able find playing time ahead of Staal or Nick Holden in the postseason. And speaking of Holden, while the 11 goals may jump out at some GMs, even a minimal amount of research would uncover an unsustainable shooting percentage in the fall rearing it’s ugly head during the second half of the season. Not exactly a trait teams will be fawning over this summer.
It’s very likely that to improve the Rangers defense, Jeff Gorton will need to replicate the creativity he displayed last offseason when he upgraded the forwards with his outside the box Zibanejad for Brassard deal.
Derek Stepan Is Expendable
The value of Derek Stepan is a polarizing discussion in Rangerstown. He’s a top 30 center in points every season, while also being dependable in the defensive end. Not exactly someone who is easily replaceable. But let’s face it, Stepan isn’t a super star either and the Rangers bolster depth down the middle.
While the Blueshirts don’t possess a stand alone in-house option to replace Stepan’s point production, the collective group of Zibanejad, Hayes, Lindberg and Miller likely can. All four centers are entering the primes of their career, so it’s not much of a stretch to assume their point production will increase not only because of their natural progression but due to increased minutes and responsibility. Take Lindberg for example. Given an opportunity in the top nine with offensive minded wingers he’s all but guaranteed to improve on his 20 points last season. Now we just have to hope Vegas doesn’t gobble him up during the expansion draft because if they do, then trading Stepan is a far less attractive option.
The Rangers can also look to free agency to bolster their center corps if Stepan is dealt, as a player such as Martin Hanzal could slot in nicely on the 4th line as he adds faceoff prowess, skill and toughness.
To me, if Gorton isn’t able to improve the blueline through free agency, dangling Stepan, who is the only tradeable asset, is a must. While losing their de facto #1 center won’t be easy, going into next season with virtually the same defense is not an option.
Antti Raanta Needs to Play More
Henrik Lundqvist proved this postseason that there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank. However, it’s likely that he wasn’t on empty because he started just 55 games during the regular season due to injury and Antti Raanta’s strong play.
The biggest mistake Alain Vigneault can make is to assume Lundqvist is once again able to handle a large workload because of a small sample size performance in the postseason.
Lundqvist’s health has limited his starts in two of the last three years, and it’s no surprise that his playoff performances in those injury plagued seasons were of the stellar variety. Meanwhile, the 2015-16 season in which he started 65 games resulted in uneven play during a first round exit to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins.
Raanta has proven he can handle the larger workload and should have the full confidence of the coaching staff and players.
Not only will increased playing time for Raanta serve the Rangers well during the regular season, it will provide the aging Lundqvist with the necessary rest to remain sharp come playoff time.
Similar to my concerns regarding Vegas drafting Lindberg, if the Golden Knights decide to target Raanta instead, it will put tremendous pressure on Gorton to obtain a replacement who can be counted on for 25-27 starts next season. The Penguins have demonstrated how important it is to employ two strong options between the pipes. It would behoove the Blueshirts to implement a similar strategy.
The Rangers Need Rick Nash
You’d think after his worst statistical season as a pro (0.57 points per game), I’d be begging the Rangers to trade Rick Nash and the final year of his $7.8M per contract. But quite the contrary, as he’s a key cog in any Cup aspirations the Blueshirts may have.
As I mentioned numerous times on the blog this year, the 2016-17 version of Nash was easily may favorite in a Rangers uniform. And yes, that includes his 42 goal season in 2014-15. For the first time on Broadway, Nash used his size to his advantage. Opposing defenses had no answers as Nash crashed the net with and without the puck on a consistent basis. When he wasn’t scoring on his bull rushes to the crease, he was drawing penalties or opening up space for his linemates.
While the Rangers possess substitutes for Stepan’s production, the cupboard is bare when it comes to replacing Nash. Other than Chris Kreider, there’s not a winger within the organization with the size, strength and talent of Nash.
Now, obviously if the Rangers are able to dump Nash’s salary in someone else’s lap, they’d have enough cap space to sign a Radulov, Oshie or Marleau. But how much better are those players in all three zones and how many years would the Rangers have to commit? Plus, it’s doubtful that any team would be willing to take on Nash’s entire contract, so the Rangers would likely have to retain a portion of his salary, hampering any ability to sign a top free agent.
Nash is no where near the offensive threat he was when the Rangers first acquired him, however, 23 goals in 67 games last season is nothing to sneeze at and likely something the Blueshirts are unable to duplicate with a successor.
So there you have it Rangers fans, hopefully my little reality check wasn’t too much of a smack to the face.
Based on my prediction history, expect all the dead weight on defense to easily be traded away this summer, Stepan to remain with the Rangers and lead the league in scoring next year, Lundqvist to play all 82 games in 2017-18 while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and Rick Nash to be traded this offseason for a bottom six forward who scores 50 goals for the Blueshirts.