2007 Off-Season Moves

A report out of the land of Maple Leafs and Argonauts might present the New York Rangers with an option for their third line center.

Paul Hunter of the Toronto Star wrote that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ interest in Michael Peca might depend on their ability to find room against their tight salary cap. Hunter writes that one player who might be on the block is Matt Stajan. Moving the 23-year-old center would add an additional $875,000 to their approximate current salary cap space of $2.5 million.

Stajan, originally Toronto’s second round draft pick (57th overall) in 2002 was one of the names mentioned in talks when the Rangers and Leafs were discussing the Brian Leetch deal that eventually saw Jarkko Immonen and Maxim Kondratiev come to New York.

The 6-foot-1 and 180 pound Stajan will turn 24 in December and is a veteran of thee NHL seasons. In 232 career NHL games, Stajan scored 40 goals and added 54 assists with 116 PIM. Last season, he appeared in 82 games and scored 10 goals with a career-high 29 assists and 44 PIM. Stajan has never been a minus player during his years in the OHL, AHL or NHL.

Stajan can play either wing and his game is based on his hockey smarts which make him a good two-way player. While he does have untapped offensive potential, his strength lies in his ability has a playmaker rather than as a scorer. The Mississauga, Ontario native has good size, but he still has some room to grow physically and become a more physical player. Stajan has the ability to be a solid two-way player.

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The New York Rangers roster and salary cap situation will become clearer on July 30 when Sean Avery’s arbitration case will be help.  SI.COM’s Allan Muir sees Avery’s case as one to keep an eye on.  To view the article, use this URL and look at Page 2:  http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/allan_muir/07/23/arbitration.numbers/index.html?eref=writers.

Avery’s case is much different than a Mike Cammalleri or Derek Roy because Sean’s case is not built on numbers.  Rather, Avery’s case has to be built on intangibles and the things he does that often do not show up in the box score.

As a result, Muir believes he will get a raise from his $1.1 million salary, but he should not approach the salary figures that Cammalleri and Roy will.  Muir’s contends that the Rangers are hoping to keep Avery under the $2 million mark – especially considering the Rangers still have Marcel Hossa’s August 2 arbitration case.

If Avery ends up with more than a $2 million contract, then the Rangers are going to have a serious decision to make. They might have to decide to walk away from either Avery’s or Hossa’s arbitration case.  Since the Rangers have more than one case, they will not have to make a decision until 48 hours after Hossa’s arbitration award.

The other alternative would be trying and move one of the higher priced defenseman like Marek Malik or Paul Mara. However, Glen Sather would be looking at a similar situation that Lou Lamoriello faced last season when the Devils had to burn a first round draft pick just to dump Vladimir Malakhov’s contract on San Jose.

The Rangers best strategy would be to hammer out deals with both Avery and Hossa prior to their arbitration hearings. This plan would give the Rangers more control over the final contract figures for both players.  Unfortunately, they do not have the ability (i.e. salary cap room) to do for Avery and Hossa what they did for Henrik Lundqvist – namely “overpay” a player compared to what his arbitration award what have been.

Remember, in today’s salary cap world, it is one thing to say a player is worth X amounf of dollars, but it is another thing to pay him X amount of dollars.

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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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Given all of Glen Sather’s activity during the first two weeks of the NHL’s free agent frenzy, it was only a matter of time before the Rangers would have to clear some salary to give them cap space to sign Sean Avery and Marcel Hossa and leave a little leeway heading into the season.

The other shoe finally dropped when the Rangers traded C Matt Cullen back to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for D Andrew Hutchinson, Joe Barnes and a 2oo8 third round draft pick.  The trade frees up about $2.3 million in salary space when you factor in Hutchinson’s contract for 2007-2008.

Hutchinson is a 27-year-old blueliner who is on the final season of a two-year contract that will see him earn $500,000.  Originally a 1999 second round draft pick of Nashville (54th overall), the Predators traded him to the Hurricanes in July 2005 in exchange for a 2005 third round draft pick that originally belonged to Phoenix.

The 6-foot-2 and 204 pound right-handed shooting defenseman appeared in a career high 41 games last season and scored 3 goals and 11assists with 40 PIM.  While he set a career record for assists and points, Hutchinson was scratched for two big chunks of the season.  He sat out 10 of 11 games from mid-November to mid-December and then was scratched for 28 of the Hurricanes final 35 games.

Hutchinson is an offensive player who has the potential to be a power play QB based on his smart hockey play.  He still needs to refine his play in the defensive zone and, despite his size; he is not as strong as he should be.

Barnes is a 6-foot-3 and 212 pound center who was Carolina’s third round draft pick in 2005 (64th overall).  He was eligible to opt into the 2004 Draft, but decided against it after a neck injury during the Under-18 Tournament limited him to just 58 games.

Barnes has two years left on a three-year deal that pays him a $475,000 NHL salary and $55,000 and $60,000 in the minors, respectively.

After spending four full seasons with Saskatoon in the WHL (240-69-83-152-266 PIM), Barnes began his professional career with Albany of the AHL.  A concussion cut short his season after just 15 games where he scored 2 goals and 1 assist with 19 PIM.  Hockeysfuture.com questions whether or not Barnes will be able to recover from both of his injuries.  His 2006 concussion is not the first of his career.  He suffered one in Saskatoon’s training camp back in September 2005 according to Adam Geric of the Saskatoon star Phoenix.

Barnes spent three seasons in Saskatoon as a teammate of former Ranger draft pick Dalyn Flatt.

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Glen Sather’s flurry of free agent signings and re-signings has left the Rangers perilously close to salary cap hell – and the Blueshirts still have to deal with the potential arbitration cases for Sean Avery and Marcel Hossa. Of course, this salary cap dealings doesn’t include the continuing rumors about the Rangers interest in Sheldon Souray.

As a result, there are some rumblings that the Rangers’ President/GM might be looking to open some cap space whatever the reason. Both John Dellapina (“Daily News”) and Luke Decock (“[Raleigh] News & Observer) have articles dealing with the possible return of Matt Cullen to Tobacco Road. If the Rangers were to trade Cullen, they would clear $2.8 million from their salary cap.

The Rangers would be taking a big risk in moving Cullen; however, it is a risk that might have to consider. While he was miscast last year as a second line center, Cullen would surely prove to be valuable as a third line center that plays an all-around game. He would add scoring to a checking third line and would defense to a scoring third line. He is also a crucial special teams element – especially with Jed Ortmeyer no longer in the organization.

The only problem is, in today’s salary cap era, Cullen is a luxury a team up against the salary cap might not be able to afford. The Rangers do have some flexibility with Avery and Martin Straka being able to play center as well as the option of moving Blair Betts back to the third line, thus giving the team an opportunity to let a kid see some time on the fourth line. It is very possible that a Brandon Dubinsky, Tom Pyatt or even Artem Anisimov could force their way into the top three line mix.

Decock points out that any trade for Cullen could involve the Rangers taking back some salary and mentions Trevor Letowski as a possible target. Letowski’s $800,000 salary would still allow the Rangers to save $2 million in caps space while not driving Carolina too far beyond their $44 million payroll goal.

If the Rangers have to take some salary back, at least the 30-year-old Letowski could be useful as a third/fourth liner as a winger or center. He is a spitfire who has good speed, but the problem is he is small (5-10/180). Outside of concussion problems last year, he has been pretty durable during his NHL career. His salary is also low enough that the Rangers could move him if they wanted to further lower the salary cap – especially considering he is in the final year of his contract.

The other name that Decock mentioned was Restricted Free agent defenseman Anton Babchuk who made $900,000 last year. While the last thing the Rangers need is another young blueliner, they could move him in another deal to get a draft pick or two. The only problem is that Carolina tried, and failed, to acquire a second rounder for him during the draft. If the Rangers kept him, they would be getting a 6-5/200, 23-year-old d-man who has great offensive potential and the size to be a top-four defenseman. He still needs more time develop and learn how to be more effective. The problem with acquiring Babchuk is that he would be more costly than Letowski over a longer period of time.

Outside of these two players, there really aren’t any other players that fit into the equation for either the Hurricanes or the Rangers. Either the players don’t clear enough salary cap space for Carolina or would add too much salary to the Rangers payroll. The only player who might even come close is goaltender John Grahame at $1.4 million, but even that is too expensive for the Rangers tastes. Besides, they could probably sign former Panthers and Canucks netminder Alex Auld for about half of Grahame’s salary if they wanted to replace Stephen Valiquette as the backup goaltender – something they should look into if they clear enough salary cap space.

Bruce Berlet reports some interesting news that has implications both in New York and Hartford.  Berlet writes that former Wolf Pack Coach/GM Jim Schoenfeld will replace Don Maloney in the Rangers front office.  As a result, Wolf Pack assistant coach Ken Gernander will become the new bench boss in Hartford – not a surprise given Gernander’s work as a captain and assistant coach with the Rangers AHL teams in Hartford and Binghamton.  Assistant coach J.J. Daigneault will remain and I guess it will remain to be seen if the Rangers add a third coach.

Berlet also says that Dwight Helminen has joined the exodus of former Ranger prospects who have headed across the pond to play in Europe.  Helminen has signed with a team in Finland.

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You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask of the old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Slats

Will apologies to Jim Croce, Michael Nylander found out the hard way that you don’t mess around with Rangers President/GM Glen Sather.

The bizarre Nylander contract negotiations ended within the opening hours of the 2007 NHL free agent frenzy when the Rangers decided not to choose between Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. Slats decided to have his cake and eat it too by bringing in the UFAs.

While Nylander was a “perfect” playmaker for Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers did get manage to get younger by signing Gomez (27) and Drury (30) – a feat that is a new idea in Rangers land.

If reports out of Edmonton are true and Nylander has signed with the Oilers, then one has to wonder what #92 was thinking. IF he thinks he is going to duplicate last season with Geoff Sanderson as his winger instead of Jaromir Jagr, then he sadly mistaken.

While some might feel that the contracts are on the excessive side, they really aren’t when you look at the contact that Daniel Briere received from the Philadelphia Flyers and the contract that Brian Rafalski signed with the Detroit Red Wings.

The main concern is how Sather is going to slot in his remaining free agents. On the plus side, Karel Rachunek is mostly gone (barring a lowball contract) and Kevin Weekes probably can only return if he accepts a significant pay cut from his nearly $2 million contract. That still leaves four main cogs that need to be signed: Sean Avery, Marcel Hossa, Henrik Lundqvist, Petr Prucha and Brendan Shanahan. One positive point is that only Shanahan is an UFA. The other players are Group 2 Free Agents and are subject to compensation. It appears the Blueshirts have the salary cap room to take care of business.

“We still have other people we have to sign,” Sather said on the Rangers official web site. “… We think we’ve calculated things out, so we’re still in the good position.”

As it stands, the most important person in the Rangers organization now becomes Cameron Hope – the team’s Vice President, Hockey Administration, Research and Development (aka salary cap specialist).

While the Rangers seem to have their salary cap ducks in a row, I can’t help but wonder if Sather is finished retooling the Rangers. On his “Daily News” blog, John Dellapina offered the following insight: “As of 7:30 p.m., the Rangers were one of a handful of teams still in the hunt for Sheldon Souray, the 30-year-old defenseman who is coming off a career year with the Montreal Canadiens.” Of course, he did post that about 20 minutes prior to signing Drury.

If the Blueshirts are still in the market for a defenseman, then a couple of things might have happen first. Sather might have to make a choice between Hossa and Prucha and he might have to move a defenseman (i.e. Marek Malik). If the Rangers do not follow through on their intentions of buying out Darius Kasparaitis, they might have some extra salary cap wiggle room to keep both forwards or even to pursue one of the other free agent blueliners.

Putting aside the financial machinations, the biggest problem at the Garden is deciding which new center gets to wear #23. Frankly, the Rangers should insist that Gomez select another number because the last ex-Devil who wore #23 in New Jersey was Bruce Driver.

Even with that black cloud on the horizon, it is a great day to be a Ranger fan. The Blueshirts sign two top centers, the Devils take a big hit in losing Gomez and Rafalski, the Islanders are a decimated team and the Buffalo Sabres are down two centers. Remember, that is still early in the free agent frenzy, but things are expected to move quickly as the big names are taken off the market.

As far as Souray goes, I might just pass if I were Sather.  I would look to save some cap space and see what role players might be available in a couple of weeks – maybe a nice physical presence for the fourth line or a top notch defensive forward.  The Rangers could even look to upgrade in goal with a netter backup than Steve Valiquette.  While Alex Auld had a rough year for Florida last season, he was a solid performer for Vancouver the year prior to that.

At the very least, the Rangers will need a couple of million dollars in reserve as the season progresses to cover themselves in case of injuries or if they want to go on a mid-season trading spree.

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