Even though the New York Rangers are only 10 days removed from their season ending in the Eastern Conference Final, the offseason business has already begun.
They spent the opening days of the summer working on one-year contracts for Sammy Blais and Vitali Kravtsov, with both forwards coming in at easily digestible salaries. That represents an important start as Chris Drury prepares to navigate a difficult cap crunch.
The team president and general manager was flushed with cap space last season, which allowed him to take on chunks of salary while making four impact trades at the March 21 deadline. But that will not be the case for the foreseeable future.
With the NHL’s salary cap stagnant for the previous three years and now set at $ 82.5 million for the 2022-23 season – a measly increase of $ 1 million – the Rangers don’t have much wiggle room.
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Their core is locked in, with mega extensions for center Mika Zibanejad and defenseman Adam Fox set to kick in next season. Those two, plus forwards Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, defenseman Jacob Trouba and goalie Igor Shesterkin, will account for over 60% of the Blueshirts’ available cap space, leaving Drury to build around them with relative frugality.
Having the Essential Six in place provides a level of comfort, but it will also stymie maneuverability until the salary cap makes a more significant jump.
In order to paint a clearer picture of just how limited the Rangers are this summer – and exactly how much they can afford to spend – here’s our most in-depth projection using all the players currently under contract:
First line → LW: Chris Kreider ($ 6.5M) • C: Mika Zibanejad ($ 8.5M) • RW: ?
Second line → LW: Artemi Panarin ($ 11,643M) • C: ? • RW: ?
Third line → LW: Alexis Lafrenière ($ 925,000) • C: Philip Chytil ($ 2.3M) •RW:?
Fourth line → LW: Sammy Blais ($ 1,525M) • C: Barclay Goodrow ($ 3,642M) • RW: Ryan Reaves ($ 1.75M)
On the bubble → Bobby Trivigno ($ 925,000), Brennan Othmann ($ 894,167), Lauri Pajuniemi ($ 883,750), Vitali Kravtsov ($ 875,000), Will Cuylle ($ 828,333), Jonny Brodzinski ($ 762,500), Dryden Hunt ($ 762,500) and Gustav Ry)
Notable UFAs → Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, Kevin Rooney, Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano
Notable RFAs → Julien Gauthier and Kaapo Kakko
Breaking it down → If we only look at the lineup regulars, the Rangers have eight forwards under contract at a cap charge of $ 36,785 million. But they can carry up to 14, which leaves Drury with several decisions to make.
We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. It’ll be a necessity for cheap options to help fill out the roster, which is why they’ll have to rely on entry-level contracts and low-cost signings. It’s safe to assume that at least three players in the “bubble” price range will make the final cut.
Who will fill those spots? Hunt is likely to take one after playing in 76 games last season, with Brodzinski and Rydahl making logical choices to compete for another since they can both play center.
If Kravtsov isn’t traded this summer, he’d almost certainly have to be somewhere on the roster, too. Not only has demoting him to AHL Hartford caused problems in the past, but now it would mean exposing him to waivers. The Rangers won’t take that chance. If 2018 first-round pick is dealt, that would increase the chances for a prospect such as Othmann or Cuylle to break through.
For the sake of projecting, we’ll add Hunt, Brodzinski and Kravtsov for a combined cap hit of $ 2.4 million. Add that to the total for the eight regulars and you have 11 forwards on the books for a projected cap charge of $ 39,185 million.
But while those training camp battles will be intriguing, the difference in salary between the bubble players is minuscule. The most difficult financial decisions will involve the top of the Rangers’ lineup. Three of their top-six forwards are UFAs – Copp, Strome and Vatrano – leaving center and right wing as glaring needs, with limited capacity to add.
Barring a trade or unexpected offer sheet, Kakko should re-sign and plug a hole at RW. One person with knowledge of the situation told lohud.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, that a bridge deal similar to Chytil’s two-year, $ 4.6 million contract is a good ballpark figure.
That brings us to the obvious void in the middle, with internal debates going on about whether to re-sign either Copp or Strome or pursue an alternative. Drury can only offer so much (more on that below), which will price out some of the most appealing targets. But identifying the right blend of cost and fit will be his most critical decision of the summer.
First pair → LD: Ryan Lindgren ($ 3M) • RD: Adam Fox ($ 9.5M)
Second pair → LD: K’Andre Miller ($ 925,000) • RD: Jacob Trouba ($ 8M)
Third pair → LD 😕 • RD: Braden Schneider ($ 925,000)
On the bubble → Patrick Nemeth ($ 2.5M), Zac Jones ($ 925,000), Nils Lundkvist ($ 925,000), Jarred Tinordi ($ 900,000) and Matthew Robertson ($ 797,500)
Notable UFA → Justin Braun
Breaking it down → At the moment, we have to work with the assumption that Nemeth is on the roster. If you add him, plus either Jones or Lundkvist, as the sixth and seventh defensemen, that’s a total cap charge of $ 25,775 million.
Drury is expected to pursue trade options for Nemeth, but it won’t be easy. Convincing another team to take on the final two years of his deal at an average annual value of $ 2.5 million will likely require attaching a draft pick or prospect, similar to the 2020 trade in which the Rangers sent a second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings in order to offload veteran defenseman Marc Staal. The other option is a buyout, which would save $ 1.5 million next season and leave them with a cap charge of $ 1 million. There would be no cap penalty for the 2023-24 season, then $ 1 million each year for 2024-25 and 2025-26, according to CapFriendly.
In reality, a Nemeth buyout would only save $ 500,000 or so against the cap this coming season because they’d have to use roughly $ 1 million to replace him. Does Drury think that’s worth it? We’ll find out sometime during the upcoming buyout period, which begins 48 hours after the Stanley Cup Final concludes.
Regardless of what happens with Nemeth, though, the Rangers’ best path forward is to promote one of their top D prospects. Jones, Lundkvist and Robertson are viable candidates and would represent the most cost-effective options to fill the opening on the bottom pair.
Starter → Igor Shesterkin ($ 5,667M)
Backup → ?
Notable UFAs → Adam Huska and Keith Kinkaid
Notable RFAs → Alexandar Georgiev and Tyler Wall
Breaking it down → This is fairly straightforward.
Shesterkin is locked in for the next three seasons, with this year’s Vezina Trophy winner making his $ 5.667 million salary look like a bargain.
The backup job will need to be resolved this summer. The Rangers simply can’t afford Georgiev’s qualifying offer of $ 2.65 million, which means he’s either going to be traded or allowed to walk as a free agent. They’ll be on the hunt for a cheaper No. 2 in the range of $ 1 million.
The final tally
Projected player salaries → $ 70,627 million (11 forwards + seven defensemen + one goalie = 19 players, with up to four spots to fill)
Buyout charges → $ 3,428 million
Current projected salary cap hit → $ 74,055 million
Available cap space → $ 8,445 million
Breaking it down → You may be wondering why the final number of available cap space is lower than what you’re seeing on CapFriendly or other sites. That’s because this projection is looking ahead to paint as accurate of a picture as possible.
The 19 players I’ve projected as current members of the roster – that includes the three “bubble” forwards, Nemeth and a young defenseman – are designed to provide the most realistic outlook on the difficult financial situation facing Drury this summer.
This is the framework they’re using in the Rangers’ front office. With that approximate $ 8,445 million in cap space, the priorities are re-signing Kakko, deciding on a second-line center and identifying a backup goalie.
If we go with the assumption that Kakko will cost around the same as Chytil’s $ 2.3 million AAV, that leaves about $ 6 million for 2C, a No. 2 netminder and whatever else Drury might do with the 23rd and final spot on the roster. Ideally, he’d like to add a 14th forward such as Motte, Rooney, trade target or cheap free agent. But if that’s not feasible, he has the option of carrying less than 23 players.
That’s why, whoever the center choice ends up being – Copp, Strome or otherwise – that player is going to have to come with an AAV as close to $ 5 million as possible. A Nemeth trade could push that number to $ 6 million or so, but the math won’t allow for more than that. The other options for shaving money off the cap are extremely limited, particularly given all of the no-movement clauses on the roster.
The bottom line: Get ready for a summer of tightening the purse strings.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.