In a perfect world, the New York Rangers keep Matt Cullen and go on to dress one of the strongest center ice quartets in the NHL with Cullen, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Blair Betts.  Unfortunately, we do not leave in a perfect world and the Blueshirts have to contend with an NHL that features a hard salary cap.  As a result, the Rangers felt the need to create some payroll flexibility and Cullen’s nearly $3 million salary was the one that was sacrificed.

This payroll flexibility will make Glen Sather’s job easier as he attempts to sign Sean Avery and Marcel Hossa and avoid any trips to arbitration.  The more flexibility Sather has in terms of the salary cap, the more tinkering Sather can do.  It is this tinkering that might cause Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov backers some worry (more on that later).

Despite all of the Rangers talk about getting younger and taking advantage of their prospects, there is still the feeling that there is a veteran lurking behind every corner.  If you think I am exaggerating, then all you have to do is look at the re-signing of Jason Strudwick.  By all accounts, Strudwick served the Rangers well two years ago and then at the end of the season when the defensive corps was decimated.  However, that is at the core of my paranoia.

Rather than let a David Liffiton play down the stretch of the season, the Rangers brought Strudwick back from Europe – despite the fact he would not be eligible to appear in the playoffs.  As a result, the Rangers took valuable ice time away from a youngster who might have had to play in the playoffs in favor of a veteran who was not eligible for the playoffs.

Bringing Strudwick back for another season as a spare defenseman wouldn’t be all that bad if the Rangers didn’t already have other options.  If you work under the assumption that Marc Staal will be one of the regular six defensemen, then Thomas Pock was all set to assume the spare d-man spot – thus eliminating the need for Strudwick.

This scenario is further complicated when Sather acquires Andrew Hutchinson in the Cullen deal.  While Hutchinson does have the potential to be a power play specialist, one has to wonder if that potential will ever be fulfilled given that he is 27-years-old and he played only four games during the final two plus months of the season for Carolina.

The matter is even further complicated because Hutchinson, like Pock, cannot be assigned to Hartford without clearing waivers.  It is within the realm of possibility that Staal would be assigned to the Wolf Pack because he has options – especially if he duplicates last season sub par training camp.

Barring the trade of one of the holdovers (something likely to happen – more on that in a minute), the Rangers have left themselves with little flexibility.  With five spots set, the battle for the sixth spot comes down to Hutchinson, Pock, Staal and Strudwick.  Things get even more complicated if someone like Bobby Sanguinetti wows the team in training camp.

Given that they may have little wiggle room under the cap, the Rangers are not in a position to carry two spare defensemen.

So why can’t the Rangers move a defenseman and create a little flexibility among the defensemen?

If Sather wanted to move one of his defenseman to create cap space, he would have done it and simply kept Cullen.  The only way Slats was going to trade a defenseman was if it opened up payroll room for the Rangers to sign Sheldon Souray.

If we apply Sather’s actions with the defense corps to the center position, Dubinsky, Anisimov and even Tom Pyatt are not the leading contenders for the open center position.  Even if they were, they would be battling for the third line spot because Tom Renney is more inclined to give Blair Betts the first shot as the third line center.

Odds are it won’t even come down to that.  If the Rangers do keep Avery and Hossa, it is possible that Avery or Martin Straka would move to center.  If they didn’t, then it means Hossa has to play on the fourth line.  For example:





For Dubinsky or Anisimov to play, Hossa would have to take Orr’s spot with Straka sliding back up to the first line.  It is hard to see Renney moving Hossa down to the fourth line in favor of a rookie center.  It is hard to imagine Straka as a full-time center because he is not particularly strong on face-offs.

However, there is one way Hossa could be moved down to the fourth line – by signing a veteran center on the cheap.

The Rangers can acquire some wiggle room by placing Darius Kasparaitis on waivers.  If he is not claimed, he can be placed on the Wolf Pack’s roster and his $3 million salary does not count against the cap.

For better or worse, there are some veteran centers who are on the market and might be tempted into a signing a Ranger-friendly contract for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

One center who is no longer one the market is former two-time Ranger Petr Nedved.  Reports say that Nedved will join Sparta Praha for the third time in his career.  Blueshirt Bulletin reports Nedved has signed a one-year deal with the Czech Republic team and there is no “out clause” provision should Nedved receive an NHL deal.

Fortunately, another former Ranger who is available might be nearing the end of the line as well.  Reports say Eric Lindros might not continue his playing career as he focuses more on his work with the NHL Players Association.

While these two centers are off the market, there are still four centers that could draw interest from Sather and the Rangers – if the price was right.

Given Sather’s penchant for signing players from the Czech Republic, Patrik Stefan and Josef Vasicek would be enticing targets.

Stefan, the first overall pick in 1999 by Atlanta, has never lived up to advanced billing.  The 6-2/210 Stefan has transformed his game from offensive player to more of a two-way center who fits the bill as a third line center.  The 26-year-old has strong skating skills and still has those unfulfilled offensive skills.  The biggest knock is that he does not use his size and strength enough and is too willing at times to play a finesse game.  Considering he made $900,000 last season with Dallas, he might be amenable to a Ranger-friendly contract offer.

Josef Vasicek brings a little different style of play than Stefan.  While the 6-5/214 Vasicek cal also play LW like Stefan, the former Hurricane 4th round draft pick in 1998 bases his game on a solid work ethic rather than Stefan who relies on talent.

Vasicek, who will turn 27 in September, plays a tough two-way game and would do well as a third line performer.  However, he really has no offensive game to speak of at this point in his career.  Vasicek earned $1.3 million last season.

One player who presents an interesting conundrum is Jason Allison.  The 32-year-old has pronounced himself fit after missing all of last season due to physical and personal problems.

“I’m physically and mentally as healthy as I’ve been in five years.  I’m excited and ready to go,” Allison told the Canadian Press in late June.  “I think I’m probably the lowest-risk guy out there.  I’ll be on a one-year deal for a lot less money than anybody who can score a point a game and yet I’ve done it my whole career.”

The 6-3/215 Allison tallied 485 points in 552 games; however, he has not player more than 70 games in a season since the 2001-2002 season and has only played 66 games in the last four years due to injury and the lockout.

Allison is a superior playmaker (50 or more assists in four seasons) who is solid on face-offs and would make a strong second line center, never mind third line center.  On the negative side, Allison is a sub par skater and one has to wonder how his injury problems have affected his play.  On the plus side, his history of injuries could open up chances for a Dubinsky or Anisimov during the season.

The most likely apple of Sather’s eye would be Michael Peca.  The 33-year-old center is the type of solid two-way player you would want as a third line center.  The 5-11/190 Peca is a supreme penalty killer and a face-off specialist.  Despite his size, he is ready, willing and able to play a physical and borderline nasty/dirty game.  That is also one of his drawbacks.  His style of play often causes him some injury problems and, at times, causes him to lose focus and get off his game.

While Peca does not have the offensive skills he had a few years ago, he can offset that loss through his leadership, and more importantly, through his defensive play.  The biggest drawback is the contract Peca would want.  He made $2.5 million last season playing for his hometown Maple Leafs.  However, in a July 17 report, the Canadian Press wrote that the Rangers were interested in Peca.

So, what should the Rangers do?  It all comes down to how confident they are in Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov or Tom Pyatt.  If they believe one of these youngsters can step into the third line spot, then I would roll the dice and give them a shot.  If they are hesitant in the least bit, then they should take a run at one of these centers.

I know that is not the “politically correct” thing to say in the world of the Rangers, but they can’t afford to have Blair Betts as their third line center.  The problem is signing one of these centers could force the Blueshirts to walk away from an arbitration award to Hossa – thus making him a free agent.

In that case, the Rangers would have to decide if they are more confident in their young centers stepping up, or one of their young wingers (Alex Bourret, Nigel Dawes or Lauri Korpikoski) stepping up and filling Hossa’s spot.  If the Rangers are more confident in the centers, then sign Hossa and forget the veteran center.  If they are more confident in the wingers, sign a veteran center and let Hossa walk.

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