what-rangers’-strategy-will-be-as-free-agency-opens

Jeff Gorton will mosey to the end of the dock and drop his fishing line in the shallow part of the free-agent lake. The Rangers general manager might have to wait a bit before he gets a bite.

If you’re expecting a splash when or soon after the market opens at noon Friday, you’re looking in the wrong place. The Rangers simply do not have the requisite amount of cap space to be in the mix when the big boys, few of them that there are this time around, enter the conversation.

“We have some players we’ve identified that could help us, and we’ll talk to those people at the right time and go from there,” the GM said following the draft. “I don’t know one way or the other, but I don’t think it will be like last year, that’s for sure. So we’ll see.”

Last year, the Rangers signed Artemi Panarin, the valedictorian of the Class of 2019, to a seven-year, $81.5 million deal at an annual cap hit of $11.6 million. So no, this Oct. 9 is not going to be like that July 1.

This year, the team is seeking support players. In general, those type of free agents don’t necessarily sign on Day 1. But the flat cap and lack of space throughout the league might prompt some second-tier guys to jump on the first reasonable offer so they are not caught out in the cold later in the signing season leading up to an overly optimistic Jan. 1, 2021, target date for opening next season.

Rangers will be hard pressed to afford Jesper Fast.
Rangers will be hard pressed to afford Jesper Fast.NHLI via Getty Images

The Rangers have essentially $17.37 million of space with which to fill five open spots on a shadow roster that includes one goaltender (Igor Shesterkin); four defensemen (Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Brendan Smith); and nine forwards (Panarin, Alexis Lafreniere, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden and Julien Gauthier).

The Blueshirts — who will need to add a goaltender, two or three defensemen and three or four forwards — will have to reserve around $10 million for Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Strome, both of whom are expected to file for salary arbitration. That leaves just over $7.36 million for Alex Georgiev, Brendan Lemieux and the rest of the crew.

Bid a fond farewell to Jesper Fast, the five-times running Players’ Player whom the Rangers simply cannot afford to keep. There were no negotiations between the parties in this lead-up to free agency, but that’s not a terrible surprise given that they’d exchanged numbers on an extension before the trade deadline and were not close.

Each side has known for months where the other stands. There’s just not enough in the till to pay the popular winger, who could play anywhere up and down the lineup and whose departure leaves Kreider as the sole surviving member of the 2014 Cup finalists and 2015 Presidents’ Trophy winners. Off to the market he goes.

The Blueshirts’ current amorphous bottom six lacks definition. Management would like to address that by incorporating a forward (or two) who can grind, get in on the forecheck, take the body and present a physical challenge for the opposition. The Islanders’ Matt Martin fits that description, but the Rangers are not expected to be in the hunt for the 31-year-old. There is a need for a fourth-line center, presuming the assignment is not reserved for Howden.

Greg McKegg, who filled that role much of last season before becoming a free agent, remains in the mix. The Rangers are believed to have some interest in a reunion with Brian Boyle, who will turn 36 in December, but they may not be able to meet his contract needs. And no one would expect Boyle to commit on Day 1 unless blown out of the water by an offer. That type of deal won’t be available in New York.

Derek Grant, Nick Cousins, Craig Smith, Vinnie Hinostroza and Cody Eakin could well get a call. Again, though, the Rangers are not in prime position to outbid teams.

There is a need on the back end for a veteran to keep the spot warm for a year or two until the prospects are ready to play. Trevor van Riemsdyk, Troy Stecher, Ron Hainsey, Jon Merrill, Troy Stecher, Slater Koekkoek, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn are among the candidates.

There are months to go before camp opens, months in which trades could develop that might alter the equation. For now, though, Gorton will go fishing and see if he can get a nibble.