30 IN 30 - NEW YORK RANGERS (9th place)
Like clockwork, an Alain Vigneault-coached team made it into the playoffs with a 100+ point season. We could add in the bit about how he once again fell short of the Stanley Cup, but that's not enough to outweigh his status as an elite coach in this league. The roster he has in front of him is a different story. Hefty cap hits attached to underperforming veterans have handcuffed this team's ability to sign or acquire a big fish. Mix that in with four straight years without a first round draft selection and the internal development talent isn't knocking on the door either. Hence why the team has tried so hard in recent years to acquire some via trade - Lindberg, Puempel - or college free agents/defectors - Vesey, Hayes. For those, about criticize this last point, we will acknowledge that players who have completed all four years of the college are within their rights under the CBA to become a free agent. As players they have passed up the opportunity to enter the league early and make money. Imposing a standard of team designated rights on a player over and above that of the active roster or European players is unfair, but it's not our fault for pointing out that Jimmy Vesey passed up the opportunity to play on Nashville this year just so he could be closer to home. Then again, living 'abroad' for two years in the country music capital woulda been super tough... Anyway, back to the expansion talk. The Rangers will have to shed salary somewhere this summer, especially if they're looking to make room for top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, who has all but announced his intention to be in a Rangers uniform next season. Can New York utilize the expansion draft to create space or will they be destined to lose a future starter in net?
PROTECTION LIST STRUCTURE
- Nash (*NMC)
- Staal (*NMC)
- Giradi (*NMC)
- Lundqvist (*NMC)
The Rangers will definitely be going with 7-3-1 structure. Their wealth of forwards makes such a move imperative. Rich Nash contract, which includes a 'No Movement Clause', makes things a little harder, but I don't see the Rangers too concerned about losing RFAs like Oscar Lindberg, and Brandon Pirri. Although they have both performed amicably in their short, two season stints with the Blueshirts, neither player has improved in their production.
Who could they lose?
What could sting, is losing a game-breaker in Michael Grabner. His age and inconsistent career production make him difficult to protect over the forwards outlined above, but 27 goals is a lot to replace, especially when it only cost the team $1.65M in cap space. His strong skating ability and active stick make him an effective penalty killer and overall pain to play against after punishing teams for their glaring turnovers. Inconsistency and injury has riddled his game a bit over the years, but if placed alongside a playmaker, Grabner remains a deadly trigger man.
Another potential loss for the Rangers could come in the form of a 2nd-pair defencemen. Nick Holden has surprisingly come into his own under the brights lights of New York, and at this point could be considered the team's second best D-man (behind Ryan McDonagh). Although not the most natural offensive threat from the back end, Holden's not shy about jumping into a rush or putting the puck on net, hence his 0.43 Pts/GP production. In comparison to the other defenders available in expansion, Holden statistically will stack up quite well. However, his age (30), left hand shot, and upcoming unrestricted free agency (2018) could all weigh against his selection.
BUT........ the key player impacting any move or hypothetical protection list made by the Rangers is Antti Raanta. It comes as no surprise that Vegas is in the market for a burgeoning, young tender looking to take the reigns as a starter on another NHL team. Raanta ticks all the boxes after successful runs in Chicago and New York as each team's primary backup. His current $1.0M cap hit provides even more appeal to Vegas, who will be flush with RFA options within the expansion process, but nevertheless restricted to only 10 selections under the 'without a contract' category. With this in mind, the Rangers have a choice: (i) allow Raanta to be picked by the Golden Knights in order to save both Grabner & Holden from selection, or (ii) deem these two skaters to be replaceable commodities and deal Raanta for whatever you can get.
To trade or not to trade?
Several teams are in a position to take on a tender before the draft. Arizona, Calgary, NYI, and Philadelphia have noticeable openings in goal, while Ottawa, San Jose, Vancouver, and Winnipeg could all be in the mix if they consider Raanta an upgrade in value or performance over their current protection tender. But with Washington (Grubauer) and Pittsburgh (Murray or Fleury) also in the same conundrum, the predictable return in a deal - low ceiling prospect or 2nd-3rd round draft pick - will be much lower than the current value Grabner provides. With such a low 'hit-rate' on draft picks outside the 1st round, there's a chance they receive a zero-impact player in return.
EMPIRE CITY TO SIN CITY...The Golden Knights select
Unless he get's dealt before the expansion draft, the Vegas selection here has to be Antti Raanta. His numbers have been consistent for years, and in some respects last year even surpassed those of King Henrik... okay, that's not fair. He hasn't shouldered the burden of a #1 tender just yet, including the night-in-night-out starts against the league's top teams, but we have seen signs of promise. Stacked up against the other top backups, rumoured to be on the move (or in Darling's case, already have), Raanta's numbers show a wider gap between himself and his team's primary starter in almost every category. Considering each goalie has a different roster and style of play in front of them, the relative gap between starter and backup serves as an effective tool for evaluation across teams.
With Darling already dealt and signed in Carolina, and Pittsburgh likely to ship out Fleury in order to protect Murray, Vegas should and will focus their attention on Raanta and Grubaurer.
Dan Girardi's and Marc Staal's contracts flat out suck. Not only would the Rangers have to find a team willing to take on either of their cap hits, you'd need their permission because of the no movement clauses. Good luck with that... Other than a buy-out, the only alternative in the Rangers' quest for cap space is dealing Rick Nash or one of their top-six forwards. Nash would likely be the odd man, but creating a market for him is in itself a challenge at $7.8M next year.
All-in-all it will be interesting to see how creative Rangers GM Jeff Gorton gets this summer to keep his RFAs and upgrade his defence. If the appeal of playing at MSG isn't enough to convince players into a discount, you can always get them to make some money on the side like Mika Zibanejad... or is it DJ ZBAD now?
Next up: Edmonton Oilers