April 2010

Before the New York Can Rangers can fathom wading into the 2010 free agent pool, they have many in-house decisions to make above and beyond clearing salary cap space. They have to address their own Restricted and Unrestricted free agents and decide which holdovers return and which ones are traded or released.

In this edition of Ranger Ramblings we will be taking a look at the Ranger free agents to see who should stay and who should go.

Every Ranger fan knows that the first step for the Blueshirts is to address the need for cap space space. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as most people think because merely assigning Wade Redden and Michael Rozsival to Hartford does not immediately help the Rangers in their quest to create cap space.

As Larry Brooks of the New York Post pointed out, all of an organization’s one-way contracts count against the salary cap until the start of training camp. The only pre-camp relief teams get is that the NHL allows teams to go over the season’s salary cap by 10%. As a result, the Rangers salary wiggle room will be restricted until training camp, in other words, far too late for the Rangers to make any meaningful signings.

Here is a breakdown of the Rangers free agents along with their 2009-2010 salaries:

    Unrestricted Free Agents:

Olli Jokinen, C; 32, $5.5 million
Vinny Prospal, LW, 35, $1.1 million
Alex Auld, G, 29, $1 million
Jody Shelley, RW, 34, $725,000
P.A. Parenteau, RW, 27, $500,000
Anders Eriksson, D, 35, $600,000
Corey Potter, D, 26, $550,000

    Restricted Free Agents:

Marc Staal, D, 23, $765,000
Dan Girardi, D, 26, $1.6 million
Erik Christensen, C, 26, $750,000
Brandon Prust, LW, 26, $525,000
Enver Lisin, RW, 24, $790,000
Dane Byers, LW, 24, $500,000
Ilkka Heikkinen, D, 25, $875,000

The big number is the $5.5 million that is coming off the books as the Rangers say goodbye to Olli Jokinen. The Blueshirts will need those funds in order to keep Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Jokinen has all the tools to be a top center, but somehow he just hasn’t managed to find the toolbox for them. If he were willing to come back on a barebones contract (say $2 million) for one year, then he might be worth the gamble. Odds are the Rangers should just look in another direction.

Keeping Staal is a no-brainer as he is the Rangers best all-around defenseman who has to be
re-signed to a three-year deal at the very least. He is the Rangers stopper on defense and always draws the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. He also has shown signs of becoming an offensive threat as well. You have to figure he is due a contract in the Ryan Callaghan neighborhood ($2.4 million or so).

Girardi has drawn much discussion on various Internet sites. While he might not have progressed as much as most fans had hoped, everyone has to remember we are still talking about a non-drafted free agent who slugged his way out of the ECHL. The Rangers are going to need his experience especially if the expected blue line overhaul is completed with Redden and Rozsival leaving the Garden.

Vinny Prospal has said all the right things about wanting to return to New York. He is a veteran leader who has been around John Tortorella long enough to held his teammates navigate the maze that is Torts. There are some concerns that injuries and age slowed him down as the season progressed, but he is still worth a roster spot at a reasonable salary.

Alex Auld was probably the backup goaltender the rangers needed all season. He would have been an improvement over Steve Valiquette and Chad Johnson and has had experience as a number one netminder in the past. It seems that the rangers are looking for an even better upgrade. There will be a number of goaltenders on the UFA market, so the Blueshirts might be able to latch onto a Martin Biron or Johan Hedberg at a reasonable price (say $1.5 million or so because both goalies made less than that last year).

All reports indicate that Jody Shelley helped steady a dressing room that Tortorella felt still needs improvement. His presence fills the bodyguard role that went unfilled when Colton Orr signed with Toronto. In addition, he proved to be a player who could skate a regular shirt and helped turn the Rangers fourth line into the team’s most reliable line – which is a big reason why the Rangers did not make the playoff because teams being carried by their fourth line are in BIG trouble.

With all of that said, can the Rangers afford to go down the mid-30s route with another aging enforcer? Signing Donald Brashear to a two-year deal is an albatross that will remain around the Rangers neck for one more season.

Shelley’s play at the end of the season might have earned himself a contract that will prove to be rich for the Rangers blood. With Torts calling for the Rangers to get younger, the team might want to leave a spot on the fourth line for a Dane Byers or Dale Weise to fight their way on to the roster.

P.A. Parenteau is another Ranger whose play at the end of the season might have earned him a contract too expensive for the Rangers. If Parenteau were a baseball player, he would be referred to as a Quadruple-A player – he is too good for the AHL (or Triple A in our analogy) but not quite good enough to be a top nine forward in the NHL (an everyday player in the Majors). Odds are he is going to look to sign with a team that will allow him to challenge for a regular spot in the lineup. The Rangers should be able to replace him in Hartford with another veteran Quadruple-A player.

Anders Eriksson was the veteran seventh defenseman the Rangers needed all season. The team thought they had that player in Alexei Semenov, but he decided to sign a two-year deal with the KHL. I am not so sure I would have benched Matt Gilroy for Eriksson down the stretch because the veteran was not really an upgrade over the rookie. As for 2010-2011, if the Rangers continue to go with youth on defense, they will probably need an upgrade as far as the veteran seventh defenseman spot goes. If the Rangers have a blend of youth and experience on defense, then Eriksson might be a cap friendly choice to sit on the bench.

Corey Potter is among a group of young Hartford blueliners who never got more than a cup of coffee with the Rangers. It seems that fans thought more of Potter than the Rangers brass. It is probably best for Potter and the team for the defenseman to move on to another organization where he will get a chance to play. The Rangers might be able to include Potter in a deal involving Redden and/or Rozsival as sort of a “throw-in” considering he does not fit into their plans. At the very least, the Rangers should be able to trade him prior to the start of the free agency and get a mid-round draft pick.

Since we have already addressed Staal and Girardi, we turn our attention to the UFA by looking at Erik Christenson. The journeyman center seemed to find a home as the first line center with Marian Gaborik – yet another indictment of the Rangers lack of top nine forwards. Christensen is better suited for third or fourth line work. However, with Chris Drury, Artem Anisimov, Brian Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky on the team, there is not much room for Christensen. At best he would be battling Boyle for fourth line duty. Given that Boyle will make just $525,000 next season, Christensen might be too expensive for fourth line duty on a team that has salary cap issues.

Who would have thought that Brandon Prust would be the main thrust and Jokinen the second wheel in the deal with Calgary? Prust reminds me of a kinder, gentler Sean Avery in that he does the most with the talent he has. In addition to be willing to drop the gloves, Prust was able to get valuable ice time as a penalty killer and along with Anisimov and Shelley made Torts change his coaching style by forcing him to play all four lines. Prust is not only a keeper, but his style of play might give Torts the ammunition he needs to talk Glen Sather into moving Avery.

Enver Lisin showed flashes of being a player who could step up and give the Rangers a much needed sniper. However, his hot and cold play quickly placed him Tortorella’s doghouse – a position that Lisin never had a chance of getting out of. It is highly doubtful that the Rangers will re-sign him and I would bet that Lisin is not all that thrilled to stay in New York. Sather would be wise to try and trade him prior to the NHL Draft and try and get something for a player who will surely leave the organization.

Dane Byers is a player who has seemed to become the forgotten prospect at Hartford. He was overshadowed this year by the hype of Evgeny Grachev and the breakthrough season of Weise. Byers has the ability to step and gibe the Rangers the same kind of grit that Shelley gave the Rangers. At the very least, Byers should be re-signed and given every chance to earn a spot on the fourth line.

If Byers was the forgotten forward, then Ilkka Heikkinen was definitely the forgotten defenseman. The Finnish blueliner played seven games with the Rangers, but only once did he log more than 10 minutes in a game. During a season when the Rangers needed to have a seventh defenseman on the roster, Heikkinen’s experience in Europe should have afforded him more of a look than he got. While it is uncertain where Heikkinen plays next season (odds are he will return to Europe), it is pretty much a done deal that he will not return to the R

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For the first time since the NHL returned from the lockout the New York Rangers sit at home watching the NHL playoffs. Much like the years previous to the lockout, when the Rangers were missing the playoffs, they were bad – but not bad enough to position themselves at a shot at the first overall selection in the 2010 NHL Draft.

As anyone who follows the Blueshirts knows, being a Rangers fan is like spending the entire season on a rollercoaster. While the 2009-2010 season was no different, the rollercoaster ride this season was particularly bizarre. The Rangers started and ended the season on big-time streaks with the mother of all miserable play. After losing their first game in Pittsburgh, the Rangers ran off a seven game winning streak to start the season at 7-1-0. With their playoff hopes fading, the Blueshirts mustered up a 7-1-2 streak to finish the season one regulation goal away from the playoffs.

However, the team that could be considered a doughnut (a hole in the middle – that is – no center) played horrendous hockey in the middle portion of the season as they bumbled their way to a 24-31-9 record – hardly playoff-caliber hockey.

So where do we go from here?

The first thing that needs to be done will not get done. Jimmy Dolan is not going put right what has gone wrong. In other words, he is not going to fire Glen Sather. In turn, Sather is not going to fire John Tortorella (yet) because Slats is not quick to admit he makes mistakes – whether or not Torts is to blame.

However, Sather is going to have to claim mea culpa in order to make any improvements to the Rangers because his salary cap wiggle room barely allows for keeping the status quo – never mind attempting to bring in a big-time free agent or trying to trade for help.

His first step is to clear out as much salary cap space as possible. He did a good job last year by trading Scott Gomez, thus making room for Marian Gaborik. In addition, he also managed to bring in defense prospect Ryan McDonagh.

Sather begrudgingly admitting his mistake in signing Ales Kotalik by turning the winger and Christopher Higgins into Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust. Not only did this trade clear some cap space by dealing away two years worth of Kotalik’s salary, the Rangers uncovered a diamond in the rough with Prust – a less troublesome version of Sean Avery.

The President/GM has to continue this hot streak by finding ways to remove both Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival. Of course, that is probably easier said than done. Unlike the Gomez deal where Sather added a prospect, moving Redden and/or Rozsival is probably going to cost the Rangers some of their prospects and/or draft picks. This is not the ideal solution, but it might be the only one.

Yes, I know the Rangers can merely place both players on waivers and exile them to Hartford but at what cost? The last thing the Rangers need are high-priced players clogging up roster spots in the AHL – never mind the potential harm that could happen as a result of the negative feedback of disgruntled veterans. Besides, it is bad enough that Sather will have to dump Donald Brashear’s contract in Hartford.

Buying out Wade or Michal is not feasible because it merely stretches out their cap hit because the salary is spread out to twice what is left on the contract. In addition, the Rangers can’t afford to lose salary cap space on players who are no longer with the team. Larry Brooks of the New York Post explained the gory details of a possible Redden buyout in his April 14, 2010 article.

“The Rangers would be charged $1,916,667 the next two and last four years of the hit, while taking a $3,416,667 cap charge for 2012-13 and 2013-14, assuming, of course that retroactive amnesty is not part of the next CBA.”

No, what Sather has to do is start burning up the telephone and try to call in all of the favors he has built up through the many years he has been in the NHL. I am sure that he has built up enough cache that he can make another GM “an offer he can’t refuse”, if you know what I mean. It might even be necessary to swap one problem for another and hope that the change of scenery is enough.

For example, there were rumors prior to the Olympic break that the Blueshirts were talking to Edmonton about Sheldon Souray. Any talks that might have been initiated were doomed when Souray got hurt. The Oilers are as interested in moving Souray as the Rangers are in moving Redden and Rozsival.

The numbers between Rozsival and Souray are similar. Souray has two more years left on a contract that is a $5.4 million cap hit. Rozy also has two years left and his cap hit is $5.0 million. If Kevin Lowe were still GM, then Sather might have been able to get away with a one-for-one deal. With Steve Tambellini in charge, Slats will have to sweeten the pot a bit.

Depending on how sweet that sweetener is, Sather might want to move Redden instead because he has three years left on a contract with a cap hit of $6.5 million.

Whichever way Sather goes, he needs to move out both defensemen in order to free up salary cap space. Before the Rangers decide which free agents or trades to pursue, they have to decide what they are going to do with their own free agents – especially Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi. if the Rangers are able to move Redden and Rozsival it is going to be essential that Staal and Girardi are retained before the Rangers can move forward.

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Now that the New York Rangers season comes down to the final two games against the Philadelphia Flyers, it is time for take a mulligan on my last column when I said the Rangers must go into the tank for the rest of the season to improve their draft position. My newfound advice comes from Adrian to her husband in Rocky II, “Win. Win!”

I know some of you might be wondering why the change in heart. There is a simple answer. Once the Rangers went on their 6-1-1 roll, they lost any chance at securing the first overall selection in the NHL Draft. As things stand now, the Rangers would most likely select 10th overall and could only move up four places if they were lucky enough to win the lottery. In the 10th slot, the Rangers have something like a 2% chance of winning the Draft lottery. Once again the Rangers were bad, but not bad enough to hit hit it big in the NHL Draft.

If the Rangers did make the playoffs, they would select 15th overall. Five spots means a lot when you can go from picking 10th to first. It doesn’t mean all that much when you can go from 15th to 10th.

Given those odds, the Rangers might as well polish off the Flyers and take the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and try their luck with a rematch against the Washington Capitals. You can pretty much presume that this year’s result would not be the same as last year’s result because the Blueshirts would be pressed mightily to extend the series to seven games this year, but as that wise sage the New York Lottery says, “You got be in It to win it” and “Hey, you never know.”

Hockey is the one sport where an underdog can jump up and take a bit of a favorite because of the play of a hit goaltender. The Rangers saw that first hand last year when they had the Caps down three games to one before rookie Semeon Varlamov took control of the series.

While Henrik Lundqvist has been up-and-down this season, he still has the ability to carry the team to a victory in a playoff series. While it isn’t likely to happen if the Rangers make playoffs, it is a certainty that he can’t steal a playoff series if the Rangers don’t make the playoffs.

Thus ends my logical explanation as to why the Rangers should make the playoffs. The mere fact that I am a Ranger (fan) means that logic goes out the window come April. I have been a Rangers fan since 1971 and each Spring there is always a part of me that can rationalize how the Rangers can make a series run at the Stanley Cup – even though 1994 was the only year when logic and fact aligned.

In all likelihood, I am just being pulled back into fantasy based on the Rangers recent run – despite the fact that five of those wins came against teams that are out of the playoffs. Perhaps I have just been conditioned to accept the Rangers frantic made dash to the playoffs as an inevitable rite of passage late in the season.

Only a diehard Ranger fan would think back to April 4, 2006 when the Rangers beat the Flyers 3-2 in a shootout to clinch the Blueshirts first playoff appearance in nearly decade. Surely, it is fate shining on the Rangers again by clinching the playoffs against the Flyers, isn’t it?

While the Rangers might have pulled me back in, I am not one of those fans who is wringing his hands over Lindy Ruff’s decision to rest Ryan Miller last night and play Patrick Lalime against the Boston Bruins. The Buffalo Sabres earned their right to rest their players by winning their division and clinching a playoff spot. Ruff’s only concern should be for the Sabres, not for how the rest of the playoffs might shape up.

If there is animosity from the Rangers or their fans, it is a waste of time. The Blueshirts had their chances to make their final week of the season more relaxed. However, they blew that opportunity by phoning in a pair of games against Boston and the Montreal Canadiens. They had their chance to earn two points instead of one in Toronto but frittered away the lead and lost in overtime. They kissed two points goodbye when they could not take advantage of a shaky Ty Conklin in a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

Honestly, you can probably find a dozen or so games where the Rangers lost golden chances to earn an extra point here or two points there. Their 17-17-6 home record pretty much explains why the Rangers are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since the NHL returned to action following the Lockout.

When all is said and done, and all of the consequences are weighed and measured, there is one reason why Rangers Nation must unite behind the idea of the Rangers winning the final two games and making the playoffs.

If the Rangers do win the final two games and make the playoffs, then that means the Philadelphia Flyers will not make the playoffs. In the long run, that is a good reason for me.

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