Over the last few weeks, I’ve been piggybacking off Elliotte Friedman and our own Brandon Cohen. This is a weekly thought post on Wednesdays going into detail about how the last week has played out. I’d usually do these ad-hoc, but I like the idea of a mid-week thoughts post. This week, let’s talk about when the Rangers competition window truly opens.
1. By standing pat at the deadline, the Rangers sent a message to their team. That message was ownership and the top guys in the organization believe in the group they’ve assembled. They believe in the players on the roster. That’s a big message to send to such a young team, and it is the right message to send. Even without COVID, this was unlikely to be a true competition year, but it would be seen as an improvement on the 2019-2020 season. While there will be some doubters, it has been better. Folks remember that February run in 2020, but often forget the Rangers were a historically bad defensive team until then. This year the defense has figured it out for the most part. The offense is too skilled to struggle like this forever. Defense is the tough part. Offense will come.
2. Another reason why this season was always a transition year: Buyouts. The Rangers have $13 million in buyout cap hits this season, really wasting their ability to add a significant piece in the offseason. Next season, with Tony DeAngelo’s buyout, it will be around $4.4 million. The following season about $3.3 million. Then nothing. This matters as the Rangers look to lock up their long term pieces and add role players to address holes in the roster. It’s why on this 12+ year old site we’ve been preaching next season. The core pieces are there, and they are the skill pieces. The only adds, if any, are at the bottom of the roster. That is what separates this team from teams of Rangers past.
3. Next season is another big step forward in development. It will be year two for Vitali Kravtsov, Alexis Lafeniere and K’Andre Miller, and year three for Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, and Ryan Lindgren. We saw the huge steps forward for the sophomore trio this year, and there’s plenty of reason to believe the freshman trio will take those steps forward as well. Add in newly signed Zac Jones, and left defense is no longer an area that needs addressing. Morgan Barron over Brett Howden goes a long way too. So now you’re looking at maybe a center upgrade in the top-nine, and some role players for injury depth? This is how you form a team. The core guys are the skill guys, and most of them have high end skill. You have top-six projected players on the third line and third pair. That’s incredible depth. That’s the big reason why the Rangers competition window opens as soon as it does.
4. You can’t have one of these discussions without mentioning Igor Shesterkin. The kid is everything that was advertised, and then some. Calm and collected in net, he reminds me of Henrik Lundqvist in net. The moves aren’t desperation, he has a great push off, and he tracks the puck well. The best thing you can say about a goalie is that he never seems lost on a play, and we can say that about Shesterkin. The Rangers would be wise to lock him into a long term deal this offseason, and perhaps that Thatcher Demko contract is what he might get. Get him locked up long term, he’s the most important piece to keep this offseason. All due respect to Lindgren and Pavel Buchnevich.
5. Cap management is another reason why the Rangers have their window to compete starting next year. In addition to locking up Shesterkin and Lindgren, the key is the Rangers have the space to lock up Buchnevich to a decent contract and not miss a beat. The first true concern comes in 2022-2023 when both Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome are free agents. We won’t have a clearer picture of that situation until this offseason plays out. We do know that Strome wasn’t a part of long term plans as recently as December. This season may have changed that. Or perhaps the Rangers try to capitalize on his success by upgrading from him. Regardless, the Rangers have a trio of top-nine centers to go with their young depth, which is a big factor in their competition window.
6. The kids coming next year are also very skilled, adding to that depth. We’ve spoken about Zac Jones already, but it’s also Nils Lundkvist and probably Morgan Barron. That solidifies the bottom pair and 4C role, assuming Barron continues at center. Outside of a big splash at center, what significant moves do the Rangers really need to make? Everything is coming from development and growth internally. This doesn’t even account for Braden Schneider, Matthew Robertson, Hunter Skinner, and Tarmo Reunanen in Hartford next season. If there’s an injury on the back end, they have a skilled kid who might be able to step right in. Skilled depth up front might be a big of an issue, but that’s mostly because the 2019 and 2020 drafted forwards aren’t signed yet. There’s plenty of skill there too.
7. One last piece: The Rangers navigated the expansion draft perfectly. They aren’t going to lose a player of significance. On defense it’s Libor Hajek being exposed. Seattle will pass. Up front it will be two of Howden, Colin Blackwell, and Julien Gauthier. I’d venture a guess the Rangers protect Blackwell and lose Gauthier. Given how Kravtsov has looked, Gauthier is already the odd-man out. It’s odd that a kid with as high a ceiling as Gauthier isn’t viewed as a big loss, but that’s the reality of the situation. He won’t be a big loss. That’s not a waste by the Rangers. If anything, it’s a good problem to have.