After some 40 years at the forefront of free agency spending, the New York Yankees and their fans found out what it was like to have one of your own stars leave when Robinson Cano signed as a free agent with the Seattle Mariners.
On July 1, the New York Rangers and their fans learned a similar lesson about free agency as they watched Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman head south to Tampa Bay to join Ryan Callahan and Benoit Pouliot head west to Edmonton.
While the three Rangers players are not on par with Cano, Blueshirts fans learned the hard lesson that turnabout is fair play in free agency.
The major difference between the Yankees and the Rangers is in the why. The Yankees let Cano walk because of the franchise’s “desire” to stay under the Major League Baseball Tax threshold of $189 million – a figure they raced past in signing the likes of Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka.
The Rangers decisions on free agency came down to having very little wiggle room due to the NHL’s strict salary cap. The league didn’t do the Rangers any favors when they set the 2014/2015 cap at $69 million instead of the anticipated $71 million. The Blueshirts had to weigh keeping the three Unrestricted Free Agents at the risk of losing their Restricted Free Agents (Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, John Moore, and Mats Zuccarello), as well UFA Dominic Moore.
While having an interest in keeping the players, the Blueshirts were not going to match the five-year deals that Pouliot and Stralman received, and the Boyle situation came down to a difference in perception – the Rangers see Boyle as a fourth line center and Boyle sees himself as a top nine forward.
“We’re trying to fit guys who were good players for us. We wanted to sign them, but once that one-week period hit, we started to get wind of what their numbers would be and their terms would be,” Assistant GM Jeff Gorton explained during a conference call with the media on July 1. “Going forward, with some of the contracts we have to do and the players we have, it just became difficult.”
With all of the Rangers UFA signings (both NHL and AHL players), CapGeek lists the Rangers available cap space as around $14 million. The Rangers do have the ability to add an additional $6.9 million – which represents the summer salary cap buffer (10% of the cap). However, the team would still need to get down below $69 million by Opening Night.
As you can see, not only were the Rangers handicapped in terms of keeping their own free agents, there is not much wiggle room in terms of bringing in a second or third line center – never mind looking to bring in a first line center – unless President/GM Glen Sather gets extremely creative in terms of dealing away salary.
Even if Sather morphed into the second coming of Houdini, his ability to perform magic tricks on the salary cap is further limited because the team tries to get Marc Staal signed to a new deal before he becomes an UFA next summer.
Yes, Sather could trade him but the cost at replacing him could be even higher – in terms of talent and salary – especially when you look at some of the crazy contract figures that were thrown around for the likes of a Brooks Orpik.
The Rangers first priority is to sign Staal to a long-term contract extension. It was one of the reasons why the Rangers chose to sign Dan Boyle to a two year deal, as opposed to re-signing Stralman to a five year deal. If the Rangers went five years on Stralman and then re-signed Staal to a long-term deal, it would be difficult to have any salary cap maneuverability with five (don’t forget Kevin Klein) of your six d-men working on long-term contracts (four or more years in excess of $2.9 million).
If you figure that Brassard and Zuccarello will get contracts in excess of $3 million per season, and if you round Klein’s contract up, the Rangers will have 11 players making $3 million or more. Believe it or not, that is not the highest number of players. New Jersey has 13 players (and is under the cap) and Philadelphia has 12 (and is over the cap). Five other teams have 11 players making $3 million or more with Boston having $4.7 million in carryover bonus overages that were not factored into the number of players.
I have to admit that I thought the Rangers would have been, far and away, the leader in top-heavy contracts. I suppose it is some solace to know that there are a lot of other teams facing a similar cap hell.
There is a way the Rangers could be able to add a top six/nine forward without having to jump through salary hoops.
The Rangers would need to get a third team involved in order to pull off a three-way deal along the lines of the one that Arizona, Edmonton and the “Rangers South” (I mean Tampa Bay) pulled off.
The Lightning started the three-way deal by trading Teddy Purcell to the Oilers in exchange for Sam Gagner. Steve Yzerman was set to buy out Gagner when Coyotes GM Don Maloney contacted him about the center.
Maloney sent a sixth round draft pick to Tampa Bay for Gagner and B.J. Crombeen (cap hit of $1.15 million) as long as the Lightning agreed to retain one-third of Gagner’s salary and cap hit – the amount Tampa Bay would have been tagged with had the Lightning simply bought out Gagner.
If Sather identifies a forward that piques his interest, he will need to find a team that has cap space available to park a “retained salary transaction”. In return, that team would receive a future draft pick or prospect while retaining some salary on the books in terms of reaching the NHL minimum salary.
The key is finding the right player and the right third team. This might be the one case of having an old codger like Sather as GM might pay off. Since he has been around since the very first NHL faceoff, you know that Slats has built up a career of cache and favors. This is the case when those innocuous “future considerations” in trades can come into play.
Failing such creativity, and even if they are able to get that creative, the Rangers are going to have to rely on some of their youngsters taking the next step in their NHL careers. The likes of J.T. Miller, Oscar Lindberg and Danny Kristo will get the chance to make the permanent jump from the AHL to the NHL.
For Miller, it might be his last best chance to impress Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff because Miller sure didn’t last year. Rather than come to New York prior to training camp and skate with the team at their informal practices, Miller showed up the day before camp started – not a good way to ingratiate yourself with a new regime.
The 2014/2015 season might offer the opportunity for someone like Anthony Duclair to take the leap from Major Junior to the NHL. It is a long shot, but a big training camp could open some opportunities.
There will also be an opportunity for young turks like Brassard, Kreider, Zuccarello and Derek Stepan to elevate their games.
There might even be the chance for a dark horse to emerge and grab an opening night spot on the roster. It could be someone like Chris Mueller who was signed to a one-way contract or it could be some small free agent signing – much like Benoit Pouliot – who steps to the forefront.
Heck, the doors are not completely closed in terms of bringing in an UFA – depending on how much of the salary cap the Rangers RFAs eat up. It is possible that a couple of veteran forwards could be looking for deals as we get closer to the opening of Training Camp. The Rangers might be able to business on a very team-friendly/cap-friendly deal.
The Rangers decided not to wait until they addressed their RFAs before taking a flyer on an UFA. They have signed 32-year-old Matthew Lombardi to a two-year deal worth $800,000 per season. The 5-11/195 center led the Swiss League in scoring last year (46-20-30-50) and is a veteran of 536 NHL games (101-161-262). He last played in the NHL in 2012/2013, splitting 28 games with Phoenix and Anaheim (four goals and four assists).
Lombardi is a player that has been on the Rangers radar according to Gorton.
“We’ve been looking for depth at the center position and Matthew (Lombardi) is always a guy we’ve kept an eye on,” the Assistant GM explained.
He is also a player that is familiar to Coach Alain Vigneault from their years in the Western Conference and Ulf Samuelsson was an assistant coach with the Coyotes during Lombardi’s first tenure in Phoenix.
Lombardi plays a finesse game that is built on his speed, agility and overall skating ability. He has a history of injury problems, the most troublesome being concussions and post-concussion syndrome. His concussion history started during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs when he took a Derian Hatcher elbow to his head.
Another player the Rangers might have considered is former Phoenix 1st round draft pick Peter Mueller. The 6-2/210 C/RW has struggled after posting a solid rookie season in 2007/2008 (81-22-32-54). Like Lombardi, most of Mueller’s problems stemmed from a concussion late in the 2009/2010 and then another concussion near the end of training camp in 2010/2011 on a hit from Rob Blake. That concussion and post-concussion syndrome forced Mueller to miss that entire season.
The 26-year-old spent last season with Kloten in Switzerland (49-24-22-46) and was last in the NHL during the lockout shortened season of 2012/2013 when he scored 17 points playing with Florida.
In the end, all of that will not amount to a hill of beans if Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis do not live up to the numbers on the backs of their hockey cards. As I said all throughout the playoffs, the Rangers best players have to be their best players.
So after the smoke has cleared on the opening days of Free Agent Frenzy 2014, are the New York Rangers a better team now than they were in the wee hours of June 14? No, they are not.
Will the Rangers be a better team at the start of the 2014/2015 season than they were at the end of the 2013/2014 season? No, they probably won’t be.
Will the Rangers be a better team on January 1, 2015 that they were on July 1, 2014? No, they probably won’t be.
Will the Rangers be a better team after the 2015 Trade Deadline than they are now? That is the time they have to be a better team and the start of being that better team will depend on how successfully Glen Sather runs the salary cap gauntlet during the summer. He has to make sure he has enough cap space to be able to correct any of the holes that might still be around as a result summer trades and free agency machinations.