Now that we have had a chance to digest the first our of submissions, let’s get right into our second finalist.
I present to you, submission #2:
The lineup below hinges on Joe Thornton coming to the Rangers. I have no inside information on his upcoming decision, and it is entirely hypothetical. Thornton is a great player but is also going to be 38 years old and is recovering from ACL and MCL surgery, so hinging your hopes on him being a top-flight player in your lineup is certainly risky. Nevertheless, I believe this lineup provides the Rangers with arguably one of the top forward groups and potentially one of the best defensive groups in the league.
Why would Thornton want to come to the Rangers after a decade in San Jose? The Sharks can certainly afford to keep him while bringing in additional talent, even if they will probably lose a top-4 defenseman in the Expansion Draft.
But maybe Thornton could use a chance of scenery. He was stripped of the captaincy a couple of years ago for no good reason and has been underappreciated for most of his career. Maybe he realizes that the core of the team is getting older (Pavelski will be 33 and Couture 28 next year) and does not want the responsibility of carrying the Sharks anymore. Maybe he leaves because Patrick Marleau is likely to go elsewhere. Maybe he wants to take a shot at playing in New York as so many great, older players have done. Maybe he wants the opportunity to play with Rick Nash, his teammate during the 2010 Olympics and at Davos during the lockout.
The Thornton contract is the largest leap of faith in my plan, though I do not believe it is absolutely unreasonable. Even if Thornton is unwilling to sign, I would follow the plan described below (including trading Kevin Hayes) and rely on Oscar Lindberg to play 3rd line center, with a UFA or Boo Nieves centering the fourth line.
I have tried to be as fair as possible on UFA contracts and trades, though I have been largely agnostic about which teams would acquire the traded players. I have not made any other leaps of faith that the Rangers can trade Marc Staal or Dan Girardi or sign free agents at deep discounts to market rates. My plan includes four separate trades, but only one involves a roster player on another team.
My main focus has been on producing the best possible team for next year while improving the defense for the long-term. I have made no assumptions about draft selections as that is beyond the realm of my already limited hockey knowledge and would not have an impact on the team for the next year or two.
I should also stress that this is personal fan fiction, not what I believe will happen. The summary of my plan can be found below, which is followed by a rather tedious description of my logic.
Las Vegas and Forward Protection
The permutations with respect to the Expansion Draft are endless and will be difficult to predict without additional information on trade chatter. From an asset management perspective, I think teams are making a mistake if they expose any player with a value greater than a 3rd round pick, though there will be instances where this is unavoidable. Therefore, it is important that the Rangers not expose any player with significant value, and players who cannot be protected should be traded. The Rangers’ ability to bribe Las Vegas has been significantly diminished by the trades for Eric Staal (this year’s 2nd rounder and Aleksi Saarela) and Brendan Smith (Ottawa’s 2018 2nd and the Rangers’ 2017 3rd rounder). A generally weak prospect system resulting from similar trades further compounds these issues.
Regardless of whether or not Thornton can be brought in, the Rangers should trade one of JT Miller, Oscar Lindberg, Derek Stepan, or Kevin Hayes this season. The Rangers will not be able to keep all of those players after this season, so a trade is bound to happen regardless—the only question is whether this occurs in 2017 or 2018. Letting Lindberg off to Las Vegas would be a mistake since he can be signed to a relatively cheap contract and is probably worth more than a 3rd round pick at this point. He could be traded, but having an affordable, competent bottom-six center is something the Rangers will need as they run up against the cap.
Stepan plays against top competition and has produced at the rate of a top-line center at 5v5. Given his contract, he may not bring back a return commensurate with his actual value. With Thornton recovering from knee surgery, I would expect Stepan to continue playing the difficult minutes that no other Rangers’ center can be relied upon to take.
As others have suggested, I would look at trading Kevin Hayes. It does not appear that he can handle tougher defensive minutes and his point production has declined significantly over the past three seasons. His FF Rel% was awful last year, and he was negative on a GF Rel% basis as well. I think we have a pretty good understanding of what Kevin Hayes is: a guy who can put up high-end production in sheltered minutes and contribute on the PK and the PP as well. He’s a valuable player, but with the Rangers’ forwards, that production might be replaceable at this point. His cheap cap hit for next year and subsequent cost-controlled contract should also allow him to be traded for a reasonable return.
Pre-Expansion Draft Trades
Kevin Hayes and Kevin Klein
The Rangers may try to turn Hayes into a top-4 defenseman but almost as important is packaging Kevin Klein’s expiring contract with Hayes to clear the $2.90 MM of cap space the Rangers badly need. (I could go on a rant here about how the Rangers probably could have gotten a 2nd rounder for Klein after last season, but that is not germane to the task at hand). I would assume that the Rangers only acquire prospects and picks in the transaction instead of a roster player, but I would think the expected return with Klein lumped in could be two 2nd round picks and a middling prospect with no salary retained. Lars Eller and Andrew Shaw both returned two 2nd rounders last year, and Hayes has put up better numbers than either of those players did (he’s also signed for just $2.60 MM next year). The only reason he wouldn’t provide for a better return is because I have attached Klein’s contract to the deal
Trading Kevin Hayes will allow the Rangers to protect Oscar Lindberg.
Grabner had a terrific year for the Rangers, and while I’d love to keep him around, he would be selected by Vegas if Lindberg is protected. That’s not acceptable from an asset management perspective, and I would trade him for a 2nd round pick (or hopefully better) to a team that has an open forward slot.
Colin Miller (Boston defenseman)
It’s unclear whether Boston will protect Colin or Kevan Miller, but the Rangers desperately need help on the right side, and Colin Miller has $1 MM and one year left on his RFA bridge deal. Colin Miller has put up terrific shot attempt stats in a sheltered role and has demonstrated that he deserves a chance to play second pair minutes. With a portion of the futures from the prior two trades, the Rangers should have more than enough to acquire Colin Miller, whom Boston may lose to Las Vegas anyway. Fluto Shinzawa wrote a piece recently on the Bruins wanting a left-shot defenseman, but since none of the teams looking to trade left-handed defensemen have open spots available (like Minnesota—that’s why they’re making the trade), a third team with an open spot would have to be in the mix.
I would think that after these three trades, the Rangers could net the equivalent of two 2nd round picks and Colin Miller. With only speculation on Boston’s asking price for Miller, it’s hard to underwrite that deal with tremendous accuracy. The Rangers could also look to swap Miller for Grabner or Hayes more directly as Boston has an open spot at forward.
For those who disagree with my expected returns, the Rangers nevertheless should be able to turn Hayes, Klein, and Grabner into Colin Miller on next season’s roster.
Sign Fast and Glass in the next two weeks; lose Fast to Las Vegas
The Rangers can, in effect, protect 9 forwards as Buchnevich and Vesey are exempt from the Expansion Draft. As mentioned before, it would be unacceptable asset management for the Rangers to lose quality forward assets for nothing. The key to dealing with the Expansion Draft is to offer Vegas only bricks.
I would sign Tanner Glass to a $750k deal with the understanding that he would play in the AHL next year. Glass will want to get a crack in the NHL next year, but the Rangers could conduct an amicable negotiation with Glass and another team that would allow him to be sent to that third team (if that team exists) for future considerations after the Expansion Draft is completed.
Jesper Fast would be signed to a market-rate deal for 2 years with an AAV of $1.75 MM.
Fast is a replaceable forward for the Rangers, and while losing him would be unfortunate, it should not have a material impact on the team’s chances next year. The Rangers can similarly afford to part with Nick Holden, Tanner Glass, Brandon Pirri, Matt Puempel, or Adam Clendening.
I think Fast will be taken by Vegas over Holden as the Golden Knights will have many decent options on defense including Nate Schmidt, Calvin de Haan, Chris Wideman, Mark Barberio, Mark Pysyk, and many others. There just are not enough open slots around the league for teams to stash all of the decent defensemen. However, many teams around the league have open spots at forward–just look at the rosters of Arizona and New Jersey! While there may be only 5-10 open spots around the league on defense, there could be almost 30 open forward slots. If teams work together over the next month, Vegas’ forwards in the Expansion Draft should consist of fourth liners, bad contracts, and Benoit Pouliot.
Vegas could select Raanta, but there are plenty of UFA goalies this summer who would cost nothing to acquire, and the demand for starting goalies is pretty thin right now. I could also see Brandon Pirri being taken instead of Fast, with Vegas selecting a proven shooter that will be in short supply among the pool of exposed players.
Post-Expansion Draft Trades
If the Rangers are unable to sign Thornton, there may be a bit more cap maneuverability, so Holden would not necessarily have to be traded. However, Holden could probably return a 3rd or a 4th round pick in the 2018 Draft, and the Rangers can use all the lotto tickets they can get.
Dan Girardi and Marc Staal
I think this has been pretty well-covered in the Rangers blogosphere, but neither of these guys can be on the team next year. End of story.
At least one of these players would have to get bought out (or waive his NMC) prior to the Expansion Draft to protect Colin Miller. I would buy out Marc Staal first, who I think is impossible to trade.
Girardi will have to be bought out shortly thereafter unless a) there is a taker on a retained salary transaction or b) the Rangers are able to swap Girardi for Andrew MacDonald’s friendlier buyout. I am not holding my breath.
I have two side notes on the buyouts, neither of which has been factored into my roster decisions:
I have wondered if you can get both players to waive their NMCs for the Expansion Draft by threatening to buy each out in the second buyout window if either refuses—Lindberg and Zibanejad are arbitration-eligible, which will probably give the Rangers a second window. This would make signing with a new team more difficult.
I would also be interested in the Rangers buying out Girardi early and leaving a spot open on defense.
The Rangers could then use this vacancy to shelter another team’s defenseman during the Expansion Draft for the price of a mid-round draft pick.
UFA and RFA Signings
Qualify Brandon Pirri and Adam Clendening, let Matt Puempel walk
I fail to see the point of keeping Matt Puempel around, but I’d be fine with the Rangers re-signing Brandon Pirri. There’s a pretty decent chance he accepts his QO of $1.10 MM, he’s a low-risk signing, and you might even be able to negotiate a slightly cheaper deal. Until the dust from the Expansion Draft settles, it will be hard to determine what the market for depth forwards looks like. Adam Clendening should remain on the team at a deal slightly above his qualifying offer but be given a European out clause (and/or an understanding he will be traded) if he does not make the roster. I have assumed that Clendening does not make the opening night roster.
Bring it. Thornton signs a 1-year bonus laden 35+ contract. Mika Zibanejad signs for 5 years at $5.00 MM per year. Kevin Shattenkirk signs a long-term deal at approximately market terms ($6.50 MM per year). Brendan Smith signs at $4.25 MM per year. Things are looking up.
@HockeyStatMiner projects Brendan Smith singing at an AAV of $5.00 MM, but that seems high to me. Perhaps the best comp for Smith is the similarly unflashy LHD Niklas Hjalmarsson, who signed for 6.38% of the cap 2014, or a $4.85 MM contract in 2017 dollars. Hjalmarsson had been a key player on two Stanley Cup teams when he signed the deal, so I imagine Smith’s contract should at least be under $4.85 MM. Jason Demers, a right-handed defenseman with much better offensive stats, signed in Florida at $4.50 MM last year. I know there’s no state income tax in the Sunshine State, but should Smith get a better contract than Demers did last year?
Nevertheless, there is enough room in my numbers to sign Smith to a $4.50 MM contract, which should get the job done unless a team gets aggressive. If the numbers get too high, the Rangers could let Brandon Pirri walk and sign a different, cheaper forward in his place. Additionally, keeping only 22 players on the roster would similarly take pressure off the cap.
Fourth Line Wingers
While there has been a glut of solid, cheap UFA wingers on the market in recent years, the Expansion Draft will put a damper on supply. P.A. Parenteau, Viktor Stalberg, and Andrej Nestrasil (if available) might be decent value plays, but with a thin market, prices could be high for a team that figures to be bumping up against the salary cap.
In prior years, the Rangers were able to promote players from within the organization to assume NHL roles, but that might be difficult this year. Marek Hrivik is a free agent and probably wants a change of scenery; Nicklas Jensen might be off to Europe regardless of what promises the Rangers make; Boo Nieves may or may not be ready; and Adam Tambellini, Ryan Gropp, Robin Kovacs, etc. are almost definitely not prepared for the majors. While the Rangers’ defensive prospects get a bad rap, the Rangers’ forward prospects are equally weak.
I’ve made the assumption that Jensen gets a two-year deal at $700k and makes the team out of camp. He would have a European out clause.
I expect Alexi Bereglazov to make the roster out of camp. He was heavily scouted and has a European Assignment Clause; the Rangers intend on playing him unless he utterly fails to adapt to the North American ice surface. Neal Pionk would battle with Clendening and Ryan Graves for the final spot on defense.
This team will win games. A lot of games. The forward depth arguably would be the best in the league. On defense, Ryan McDonagh will be paired with Kevin Shattenkirk, and Smith and Skjei will take on second pair duty. Bereglazov will stay on the left side with Colin Miller in sheltered minutes to start the season. Pionk would get to rotate in as necessary or be placed in the AHL for seasoning.
Oh, Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta will be between the pipes. Which almost seems like an afterthought.
2018 and Beyond
This team is built to win in 2017-18. If Thornton hits his bonuses (which could be $3+ million unless he signs at a discount), he would hamper the team’s salary cap in 2018-19. The Rangers will have to ink new contracts for Skjei, Vesey, JT Miller, and Colin Miller after next season; even if Rick Nash leaves and is replaced by Ryan Gropp on an entry-level deal (which is not a reasonable expectation), they will still be pushing up against the cap unless one of those RFAs is traded.
But look at that lineup! How do you not go for it?
TBD Forward 1.250 UFA, or a player acquired as part of one of the trades described below
Oscar Lindberg 2.250 Three-year deal (RFA) Brandon Pirri 1.100 Accepts qualifying offer
Nick Jensen 0.700 Two-year deal
TBD Forward 0.800 UFA, Boo Nieves, or a player acquired as part of one of the trades described below
Kevin Shattenkirk 6.500 6-Year Deal (NYR may get a slight discount to market)
Brendan Smith 4.250 $250k below Demers deal, who had higher counting stats (and is right-handed)
Bereglazov has Euro assignment clause, so likely to make roster
See Below for Trade Details
Pionk may be sent to AHL with Clendening/TBD as 7th defenseman
Retained salary trade (or swap and buyout of Andrew Macdonald) may also be possible
Cap at $76 MM next season
Moves Prior To/Simultaneous With Expansion Draft
– Package Kevin Hayes and Kevin Klein for picks/prospects
– Klein cannot be on the team given cap issues and may not be tradeable in a one-off deal without taking back salary – Team may not be able to afford each of Hayes, Miller, and Skjei in the following season
– Trade Michael Grabner for a 2nd round pick/prospect
– Trade certain picks/prospects to acquire Colin Miller (may be exposed in Expansion Draft) – Buy out Marc Staal (to protect Colin Miller)
– Sign Jesper Fast to a two-year deal at $1.75 MM per year
– Sign Tanner Glass to a one-year $750k contract (in AHL next year)
Vegas Selects Jesper Fast
– If LV selects Raanta, Rangers will need to find replacements and trade Holden for a pick to meet cap requirements – NYR may also acquire a cheap forward or two for expansion purposes as part of trades
Moves After Expansion Draft
– Buy out Girardi
– Sign RFAs/UFAs as listed above
– Qualify Adam Clendening and provide him with a European out-clause in contract
– Depending on UFA post-Expansion Draft situation, Brandon Pirri may or may not be qualified
Kreider Zibanejad Zuccarello Stepan Nash
JT Miller Lindberg McDonagh Colin Miller Lundqvist
Vesey Buchnevich Nieves Bereglazov Pionk
Exposed or Buyout
Holden (signed) Fast (signed) Glass (signed) Raanta (signed) Puempel
Pirri Jensen Clendening