2011 Off-Season Articles

As expected, and to no one’s surprise, an older grey-haired GM has been the hit of the first day of the NHLs’ Free Agent Frenzy. However, it has been Florida’s Dale Tallon who has channeled his inner Glen Sather. Then again, the Panthers had to spend like drunken sailors because, if some reports are true, they needed to add at least $18 million in salary to reach the NHL’s salary floor.

As the Rangers wait their turn to make their pitch to Brad Richards – and they are not among those suitors who are in Toronto to meet with the free agent today – they still have to be the leading contender. TSN reported that Larry Brooks of the NY Post is saying that the Rangers will have a chance to match, or better, Richards’ best offer.

While researching this article, TSN reported that the Rangers have signed Michael Rupp to a three-year contract worth $1.5 million per season – nearly doubling the $850,000 he made last season. While it seems to be a high contract, TSN also reported that as many as 10 teams made offers to the 31-year-old LW.

Rupp was originally a 1998 first round draft pick of the New York Islanders (9th overall). Rupp did sign with the isles and re-entered the draft in 2000 and was New Jersey’s third round selection (76th). Rupp played two tours of duty with the Devils, Phoenix and Columbus before playing the last two season with Pittsburgh where he posted similar numbers in 2009/2010 (81-13-6-19-120 PIM) and 2010/2011 (81-9-8-17-124 PIM).

Here is Rupp’s Scouting Report from the Toronto Star:

ASSETS: Has excellent size. Often plays as a poor man’s version of a power forward. Can play some center, as well as wing, and is also willing to stick up for teammates.

FLAWS: Will go into prolonged scoring slumps, which hurts his ability to see greater ice time. Can take a few too many bad penalties during the season.

CAREER POTENTIAL: Physical winger with some versatility.

Richards and Rupp aside, the Blueshirts have other holes to fill and there are still some UFAs who might be of interest to the Rangers.

If bringing in a first-line center is priority number one, then bringing in a veteran defenseman has to be priority number two – and a couple of blueliners who were bought figure to be at the top of Sather’s list.

Sheldon Souray was said to be on the Rangers radar last season and expects to be at the top of the list once he clears waivers and Edmonton completes the buyout. The 34-year-old Souray definitely owns the big point shot and offensive capabilities to serve as the quarterback on the Blueshirts’ power play. However, if fans were cringing at the way Bryan McCabe played defense, they might be doing more cringing watching the 6-4/233 Souray play defense.

This was the point i nthe article where I was going to make my pitch for the Rangers to sign former Chicago first round draft pick Cam Barker. However, TSN just reported that Barker signed with the Edmonton Oilers on a one-year/$2.25 million contract.

Whether or not the Rangers sign Souray, there are a couple other blueliners who should be in the Rangers sites as a spare defenseman. As part of full disclosure, I do not believe in having a young player like a Tomas Kundratek or Pavel Valentenko sit on the bench in the NHL. Rather it makes more sense to get regular playing time in the AHL.

The first defenseman has a connection to Coach John Tortorella. 27-year-old Shane O’Brien played 96 games with Tortorella’s Tampa Bay Lightning. The 6-3/230 defenseman would bring a much-needed physic al presence on defense and would give them a player who can help Brandon Prust in terms of defending his teammates. On the down side, O’Brien really has no offensive game to speak of and he does have a propensity for taking bad penalties.

The other veteran blueliner is no stranger to Ranger fans. 35-year0-old Jason Strudwick played 125 games with the Blueshirts in two years and change. Like O’Brien, the 6-4/225 d-man doesn’t have much offensive upside and both defensemen have troubles with speedy forwards.

On the plus side, Strudwick would bring leadership and veteran experience to a relatively young Ranger defense corps – something that is important given the fact the team does not have a full-time coach dedicated to working with defenseman.

In addition to bringing some depth/help on defense, the Rangers should be in the market for some inexpensive help at forward. One player I really liked has already been scooped up by the Chicago Blackhawks – Andrew Brunette.

The signing of Rupp does change the Rangers landscape, but I still believe there is a forward who would be worth the gamble. In fact, I might have offered Rupp’s contract to 26-year-old Anthony Stewart.

The 6-2/235 RW is the older brother of St. Louis blues forward Chris Stewart. The former Florida 2003 first round pick (25th overall) set career highs with Atlanta last season in games (80), goals (14), assists (25) and points (35).

Stewart used his size well and is strong on the forecheck and in the corners and is a player who still has more room to grown into a prototypical power forward.

Like Barker, Stewart needs to find a consistency to his game and he has to play close attention to monitoring his weight and conditioning.

Given that he made just $632,000, he is a candidate to receive a large salary bump from some team looking to reach the salary cap floor. Conversely, the Rangers might be able to bring him in at a reasonable two-year deal worth about $1.25 million per season.

While Tortorella has been quoted as saying the team would sign free agents for the sake of signing free agents, there is one player who might be on the team’s wish list – especially if they pass on signing Richards.

With Philadelphia bringing in Jaromir Jagr on a one-year deal at $3.3 million, Maxime Talbot on a five-year/$9 million deal, re-signing Jakub Vorachek, and signing Andreas Lilja, there might not be enough money for them to keep Ville Leino.

The 27-year-old Leino came into his own once he was traded from Detroit to the Flyers in 2010. That season, the 6-1/190 RW was a playoff star scoring 7 goals and 14 assists in 19 games. While he did not live up to the numbers in the 2011 playoffs (11-2-3-5), Leino scored 19 goals and 34 assists in 81 games.

While Leino played RW, he is a lefty shot and might be able to shift over to LW on the first line with Marian Gaborik. Leino is more playmaker than goal scorer and probably could be more of a goal scorer if he shot the puck more, rather than looking to pass first. While he has nice size, he is not a physical player and is not the fastest of skaters.

The Rangers, or any team that signs him, has to decide if Leino’s season was a career year or was it merely his best season in a career that better years to come.

Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News posted an interesting tidbit about various reports in reference to Richards’ contract. Carpiniello wrote, “Brad Richards will get max money, $12.8M per, for year 1 and 2 of contract, including a huge signing bonus for year 1.”

If that is the case, then the Rangers need to move on as quickly as possible. I would take a look at a couple of the players I have mentioned. At that point, the Rangers would be wise to take care of their own free agents and use their remaining salary cap space to bring in a forward via a trade, especially if they can bring someone in on a modified salary dump – which should limit the quality and quantity of players/prospects/draft picks being dealt.

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With the New York Rangers parting ways with their captain Chris Drury, it appears that President/GM Glen Sather is setting the stages for an active opening to the NHL Free Agent Frenzy that starts on noon on July 1. As everyone expects, UFA Brad Richards sits at the top of Slats’ wish list. In a perfect world, signing Richards would be a no-brainer. Sadly, the Blueshirts and their fans reside in the real world.

While bringing in Richards might solve the Rangers need for a first-line center and a player to quarterback the power play, it also brings a whole new set of problems.

If the various rumors are true, then Richards is looking for a deal in the seven to eight year range that is worth $50 million plus. In that case, you have traded off one expensive contract for another one. Granted Richards is better player than Drury, but how long will that last?

The last time we saw Richards, he was sitting out the final 10 games of the Dallas Stars season because of a concussion. While no one can ever tell how a player is going to respond from the aftereffects of a concussion, the likelihood of it happening again increases.

The question then changes from will Richards be a better free agent signing than Drury and Scott Gomez to does Richards become the next name in this list: Jeff Beukeboom, Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros and Mike Richter.

Even putting aside the concussion question, and factoring in the cap space the Rangers have, signing Richards to a Drury-like contract still leaves salary cap implications. The organization has to make decisions on their own UFAs like Steve Eminger, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Gilroy, Bryan McCabe and Vinny Prospal.

Even if the Blueshirts decided to pass on all of those players, they have even more imperative decision to make regarding the futures of RFAs like Artem Anisimov, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Michael Sauer and Pavel Valentenko.

All it takes is for one team below the salary cap floor to offer a Callahan or Dubinsky an over-the-top deal like Edmonton did with Tomas Vanek to push aside all the best laid plans of mice, men and Sather.

Craig Custance of the Sporting News listed Callahan as one of five RFAs who might be at the receiving end of a “poaching effort” from another team. Oh by the way, Callahan’s agent, Steve Bartlett, was the agent who got Vanek his $50 million offer sheet from the Oilers.

Even if we set aside the salary cap implications for the 2011/2012 season, there is potential trouble looming with a new CBA on the horizon. No one knows how the salary cap will work under a new labor agreement.

The NHL instituted a $39 million salary cap for the start of the 2005/2006 season. Entering this season, the salary cap floor is at $48 million. You can bet there are small market teams that are going to want to roll back a salary cap whose floor is $9 million more than the maximum was at the start of the salary cap era seven seasons ago.

No one can envision what kind of amnesty provision will be provided in the new CBA. Will teams be able to buy out any number of players? Will there be a penalty for buying out players – such as a “luxury tax”? Will player salaries be rolled back in order to fit the new cap scale?

Even if we set aside the uncertainty over future salary cap implications, there are current roster implications that have to be considered. The Rangers still need to address their defense corps. They have to find a way to add a veteran or two to help bolster and solidify the blue line. It is hard to fathom a Tim Erixon-Michael Del Zotto third pairing because that would leave the Rangers pretty much with a four defenseman rotation.

If Richards does sign with the Rangers, big lineup decisions will have to be made among the team’s forward corps.

Obviously, Richards becomes the first-line center and Anisimov would most likely return as the second-line center. Now the question becomes what do you do with Boyle and Derek Stepan? Does Stepan move to the wing – most likely on the third line – or does Boyle or Stepan drop to the fourth line? The problem with moving one of them to fourth-line center is John Tortorella is a coach who prefers to run three lines as opposed to playing four lines. Also, do you really want to waste Stepan on a checking line (third line) or on the fourth line?

Quite honestly, out of all of the problems, this last one is the least of the Rangers worries. If it were up to me, the Blueshirts would roll four lines in an effort to ratchet up their forechecking which, in turn, might lessen the time spent in the Rangers defensive zone – thus eliminating the constant need/urge to block shots and risk season-altering injuries.

The one thing that I would not worry about in reference to signing Richards was the negative results the Rangers received in bringing in Drury, Gomez and Wade Redden and in re-signing Michal Rozsival. Signing those players was not the problem. The contracts they received caused the big problem.

Sather’s ultimate mistake was paying all four of those players as if they were top-line players – which they weren’t. Both Drury and Gomez are second-line type centers and would have been fine additions if they were paid as such. In addition, giving Drury a no-movement clause wasn’t one of Sather’s best moves either. There should not have been a need to overpay Drury to return home to the Tri-State area and there should have been no reason to overpay Gomez to stay in the Tri-State area.

As for Redden and Rozsival, the same thing applies to them as well. Both were being paid top defenseman salaries while they were second-pairing defensemen. Rozsival’s career resurgence with the Rangers should have been enough so they did not have to overpay to keep him and Redden was not an elite d-man and should not have been overpaid like one.

In the end, I just don’t know what is best for the Rangers in this case. Just because they have the money to sign Brad Richards doesn’t mean they should sign him. All of the implications I mentioned doesn’t mean they shouldn’t sign him either.

In that perfect world, the Rangers would sign Richards to a very team-friendly contract. If Richards was adamant about getting a deal in the $7-8 million range, then it would be for a short-term deal (four years or so). If he his goal was to get a seven or eight year deal, then it would be for less money ($5-6 million).

The problem is with the likes of Brian Burke trying to restore the Toronto Maple Leafs; the Rangers might not have the luxury of Richards giving the team a hometown discount because of his relationship with Tortorella.

For one of the first times in the 14 years that I have been writing Ranger Ramblings, I honestly do not have an answer as to what the Rangers should do. This might be one of those cases where I won’t be able to decide and will have to wait until Training Camp starts to see how the dust settles.

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