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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