How Bad Is The Rangers’ Cap Situation?

Love him, hate him, but Glen Sather put the Rangers in position to succeed long-term.

Love him, hate him, but Glen Sather put the Rangers in position to succeed long-term.

While Rangers fans await the conclusion of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, win or lose, one thing is clear: the team has established itself among the elite in the NHL after four seasons that have produced three ECF appearances including eight playoff series wins total, a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, a best-in-East record, a Presidents Trophy, and, fingers crossed, pretty please, the chance to win a Cup this season.

But whether it’ll be ticker tape or tears streaming in June, Rangers Town/Country/Nation/Multi-Family Dwelling/Whatever will have to turn its attention to that rotten son of a bitch we call the salary cap.

Despite what envious fans of “other teams” and alarmist sports writers have to say, the Rangers are not in a bad cap predicament. Like the NYC subway during rush hour, it’s going to be tight but manageable, and probably won’t even involve some lady yelling “PEOPLE! MOVE TO THE CENTER OF THE CAR!” The guys who need to make more should be able to get their due raises, and most of the dead weight can be dropped if needed.

Let’s take a look at what the teams owes for next season, who needs to be signed, and who can fill depth roles. All figures are based on cap info from Spotrac.

On The Books For 2015-2016

Of the Rangers’ 23-man, 16 are under contract for next season, with 6 of those players entering the final year of their deal. The expiring contracts are important to note, because they are a combination of players who are important pieces for the future, and highly tradeable assets that can be unloaded at the draft or the 2016 trade deadline.

Players signed for next season, in order of their cap hit:

EXP = Expiring Contract, NTC = Full No Trade Clause, LNTC = Limited No Trade Clause

Henrik Lundqvist, G –  $8.5m (NTC)
Rick Nash, W – $7.5m (NTC)
Marc Staal, D – $5.7m (LNTC)
Dan Girardi, D – $5.5m (LNTC)
Derick Brassard, C – $5.0m (LNTC)
Ryan McDonagh, D – $4.7m
Dan Boyle, D – $4.5m (EXP, NTC)
Mats Zuccarello, W – $4.5m (LNTC)
Kevin Klein, D – $2.9m
Keith Yandle, D – $2.625m (EXP)
Chris Kreider, W – $2.475m (EXP)
Dominic Moore, C/W – $1.5m (EXP, LNTC)
Tanner Glass, W – $1.45m
Cam Talbot, G – $1.45m (EXP)
Kevin Hayes, C/W – $900k (EXP)
Chris Summers, D – $600k (EXP)
TOTAL 2015 CAP HIT = $59.8m

To recap, that means that our franchise goaltender, top four D-men, franchise Winger, and number two Center are all locked up for the foreseeable future. That’s good news. Girardi and Staal’s contracts are a point of debate in terms of their value, but keep in mind that both men could easily have fetched more money on the open market, Girardi is an iron man who has missed three games for his career, and Staal is 28 and arguably coming off his best defensive season. And if that’s not enough to make you like those contracts, take comfort in the fact that McDonagh and Klein are on unbelievably good long-term deals. Seriously, McDonagh is our captain, one of the ten best D in the league, and making $4.7m annual. Considering his age and skill level, he is easily worth over $7.0m. Klein would also have no trouble getting a contract between $4-5m.

Keith Yandle and Cam Talbot are our most tradeable assets headed into next season. With a full season left on both of their contracts, and given the demand at their respective positions, Glen Sather can recoup high draft picks while shedding salary in both cases should the need arise. It’s almost a given that Talbot will go (rumors have the Oilers interested, and going rates for young goalies of Talbot’s caliber are anywhere from high second round picks to low first rounders, both of which the Oilers possess in the 2015 draft).

Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes are must-signs for 2016, and the potential for either or both of them to have a monster, break-out year in 2015 is pretty high. If Kreider gives us another 20-25 goal season, he will easily warrant a $4.0m+ deal, more if he can blow past the 30 goal mark. Hayes plays a premiere position, and his low salary/high production means that he’ll be set for a BIG TIME raise. His 45 points at an average of 13:02 in ice time puts his rookie campaign on the level with past elite rookie performances like that of Ryan Getzlaf, a very comparable player considering his size and playmaking ability. Say Hayes scores between 50-60 pts next season and improves his faceoff win percentage. Now we’re talking about a possible $5-6m deal. Let’s just go crazy and say that Kreider hits 30 goals and Hayes reaches 60 points, aka the ultimate “This is awesome but our cap is in a world of HOLY FUCK” situation. The silver lining is that Dominic Moore, Dan Boyle, and Keith Yandle’s combined $8.625m salaries come off the books in 2016, enough to pay Kreider and Hayes a combined $8.6 in raises if the awesome nightmare scenario were to occur.

Yes, that creates a void on our bottom-two D pairing and at 4th line depth center, but remember that our farm system is stacked with potential D-men like Brady Skjei, Ryan Graves, Conor Allen, Mat Bodie, and Dylan McIlrath, all highly rated and seasoned enough that they can be expected to compete for bottom pairing D positions over the next two seasons. Considering the team’s history of graduating prospects to the pro level (Fast, Miller, and Hayes as the recent examples), it shouldn’t be a problem to get two of those aforementioned D-men into the lineup by 2016. As for Dom Moore’s expiring contract, it is almost a certainty that Oscar Lindberg, a defensive maven and faceoff specialist with offense to boot, will be on the big club’s roster next season after leading the Hartford Wolfpack in playoff scoring.

2015 Free Agents

Before we move on to this year’s free agents, it’s important to establish what type of cap room the Rangers will be dealing with. This week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman went on record to say that he expects the cap to rise to $71 million, depending on the value of the Canadian dollar. That’s kind of always been the case, but that decision has to be made soon, and Bettman’s expectation of a $71m cap at this late stage is significant. I’m more than comfortable assuming that figure for the purpose of this article, which would leave the Rangers a total of $11.2 million to spend on free agents.

RFA = Restricted Free Agent, UFA = Unrestricted Free Agent, with 2014 salaries noted by parentheses

Martin St. Lous, F (UFA) – $5.625m (2014)
Derek Stepan, C (RFA) – $3.075m (2014)
Carl Hagelin, W (RFA) – $2.250m (2014)
Jesper Fast, W (RFA) – $783,870k (2014)
J.T. Miller, C/W (RFA) – $682,643k (2014)
Matt Hunwick, D (UFA) – $600,000k (2014)
James Sheppard, C/W (UFA) – $193,548k (2014)
EXPECTED 2015 CAP SPACE = $11.2m

This list presents a clear agenda for Sather: Stepan, Hagelin, Fast, and Miller must be signed. That goes double when you consider how each of those players has performed in the playoffs to this point. The good news is that unlike last season, this year’s prime Ranger free agents are restricted, meaning that unless some asshole GM swoops in with a ridiculous offer sheet (no chance it happens with Hags, Fast, or Miller, small chance it happens with Stepan), the Rangers will have the ultimate say in whether these guys come back. That’s good, because I’d love to avoid another Anton Stralman/Brian Boyle/Benoit Pouliot debacle.

Look, I’ve perused internet comments sections galore, and have seen all kinds of stupid numbers thrown around in terms of what Derek Stepan is worth. Forget it. Realize that he’s a six million dollar man, period, end of story. Stepan is not only one of the smartest, best defensive Centers in the game, he is also ranked 20th among Centers in points-per-game averaged since 2012-13 at 0.79 clip (averages out to 64 points over an 82 game season); 2013 was lockout shortened and Stepan missed a portion of this season due to injury. With a threshold of at least 120 games played over that time, that puts him ahead of players like David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Kesler, and Paul Stastny, while placing him within a .003 range of Jason Spezza, Logan Couture, and Eric Staal. Not all of those players are $6 million men (Kesler), some are beyond $7.0m (Staal, Bergeron), and others are still on smaller bridge deals (Johansen). However, Stepan’s agent will likely use the most recent contract signings as a measuring stick, since many of the cheaper contracts were signed in years ago. The three most coveted UFA and RFA centers in 2014 were Spezza ($7.5m/4yrs), Couture ($6.0m/5yrs) and Stastny ($6.5m/4yrs).

Looking further into the stat comparisons over the last three seasons, it’s true that Stepan’s faceoff percentage is below average, but his value is even further magnified when you consider that the top five Centers in Defensive Point Shares (DPS) over that time were Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Derek Stepan, Sidney Crosby, and Joe Pavelski, in that order. If you still like your old time stats, Stepan is ranked third in plus/minus behind Toews and Bergeron, 18th in Goals Created, 15th in Assists Per Game, and 22nd in Shots on Goal. And that’s just the regular season. In the playoffs, combined since 2013, Stepan is 6th among centers in total points (Derick Brassard is 4th), not to mention his now-famous overtime goal in Game 7 of the semi-finals this post-season.

After holding out during training camp last season, we know that Stepan and his agent are prepared to go into deep water with Sather at the negotiating table. My guess is that Sather will want Stepan somewhere in the $5.5-5.8m range, citing his statistical similarities to Brassard, but the truth is that Stepan is 24 years old (his closest comparisons Couture and Stastny are 26 and 29), improving each season, and twice the defensive player that Brass is. He’s $6.0m easy, and will possibly ask for more.

A similar look at Carl Hagelin places him in the range of $3.0 million. Andrew Cogliano of the Anaheim Ducks is a near perfect comparable to Hagelin – both are forecheck wizards with unreal speed, they play the same position at the same size, and have almost identical point production in both the regular season and playoffs. Last season, Cogliano (27 years old) signed a four-year, $12 million contract coming off a 22 goal season. Hagelin (26 years old) is coming off 17 goal production and a playoff performance, to this point, that has included more than a few key goals including the OT winner in Game 5 that eliminated the Penguins.

Signing Stepan and Hagelin at their deserved salaries will cost the Rangers $9.0m, which means one thing: Marty St. Louis has seen his last season on Broadway. That’s probably not a hard sell to the fanbase right now, considering his lower production in the regular season and (to this point) dismal, almost non-existent scoring in the playoffs. Marty has made it clear that he wants to retire as a Ranger, but it makes no financial sense for the organization. Even if Sather was intent on doing it, re-signing Marty on a one or two-year deal won’t be cheap. Jaromir Jagr, an older and similarly productive player as Marty at this time last year, signed for over $3.0m on a one-year deal with the Devils. It’s a safer bet that Marty will be seeking two years or more, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a team get him for two years at $2.0-2.5m per. That means we could potentially sign Stepan, Hagelin, and Marty by using our remaining cap space of $11.2m, leaving nothing for Miller, Fast, and two depth players (a 13th forward and 7th defenseman). That’s unacceptable. Marty played a key role in our 2014 run to the Finals, and my gut tells me that he’s going to surprise many people by contributing in big ways in the remaining ECF games and beyond, but re-signing him is a terrible decision in the salary cap age.

J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast will receive two-year bridge deals from Sather, similar to what other significant young Ranger players have signed in years past (Staal, Dubinsky, Stepan, Anisimov, Kreider, Hagelin, Del Zotto, Callahan, etc.). These bridge deals seem to get harder and harder to negotiate each time they come up (see: Stepan and Columbus’ Ryan Johansen who both held out in recent years). The good news for the Rangers is that as impressive as Miller and Fast have been, their numbers pale in comparison to those other Rangers I mentioned, who had two and three years of full production en route to signing their bridge deals. Miller was considered a disappointment until about midway through this season, and Fast has 14 points in 69 career games for the Rangers. The closest comparison to either player is Artem Anisimov, who in 2011 signed a two-year $3.75 bridge deal after scoring 28 and 44 points in two full 82 game seasons. Neither Miller or Fast are even close to that, which means arbitration probably wouldn’t go their way. It’s tough to say what their range will be, but I would guess twin deals of $2.2m over two years for the both of them, putting their cap hits at $1.1m each.

As for Hunwick and Sheppard, both are likely gone. Hunwick was the 7th defenseman most of the season, but played on the third pairing for extended bouts while players like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Boyle, and Kevin Klein spent time nursing injuries. For all the praise that young players like Hayes, Fast, and Miller received for stepping up this year, Hunwick has not gotten enough recognition for his stellar defensive play. I don’t think anyone would have complained if AV decided to sit Boyle for Hunwick during these playoffs, and that speaks volumes to the type of player Hunwick is.

Initially a Bruins 7th round draft pick in 2004, Hunwick came out of his final season at the University of Michigan in 2007 as one of the Bruins’ top young prospects in a class that included David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, and Carl Soderberg. After scoring 27 points in 53 games for the Bruins in 2008-09 and finishing 14th in Calder Trophy voting that year, Hunwick’s play steadily regressed before being traded in 2011 to Colorado, mere months before the Bruins went on their Stanley Cup run. His play didn’t improve much in Colorado, and the Rangers signed him last summer along with Mike Kostka and Ryan Malone, two other “project players” with high potential upside and low expectations. But the 29 year old Hunwick exhibited fantastic skating skills en route to scoring 11 points in 55 games, with a plus-17 rating and a career high in shots-per-game. Hunwick also had the second highest CORSI rating on the team, though that stat means less considering his low number of defensive zone starts. All told, Hunwick proved that he is still a player of value, and could easily slide in as a defensively-responsible third pairing D-man on most NHL teams, maybe even second-pairing here and there. Anton Stralman was a similar project player before the Rangers organization helped turn his game around, and I expect that Hunwick will be able to score a nice deal on the open market.

Shepherd has played admirably, but not well enough to earn much of a raise. The Rangers might be able to retain him for cheap, but the smart money is on Oscar Lindberg making the team instead. Lindberg is 23 and expected to contribute immediately, and there is also the 6’3 Swedish bruiser Carl Klingberg (acquired from the Jets for Lee Stempniak), another player who the Rangers expect to be NHL-ready next season. Each of them is still on their $750k entry deal, and only one will be able to make the team barring injury.

Finally, in the absence of Hunwick, the Rangers top defensive prospect Brady Skjei is already impressing in Hartford during their playoff run, after being a top player for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It is unknown what he signed for out of college, but my guess is that it’s in the range of Kevin Hayes’ $900k salary. Let’s be safe and say it’s $900k.

That means in order to complete the roster by re-signing Stepan, Hagelin, Fast, Miller, Skjei, and a $750k prospect from Hartford presumed to be Lindberg or Klingberg (other possibilities to make the team include Adam Tambellini, who came out of nowhere to dominate the WHL in Juniors this season, Ryan Haggerty, Marek Hrivik, and Ryan Borque), the total cost will be somewhere in the range of $12.85m-$13.0m.

To get to at least $12.85m from $11.2m in cap space, Cam Talbot and his $1.45m salary will have to be traded at the draft, which we assume will be happening anyway given his considerable value and the Rangers’ need to recoup draft picks. Mackenzie Skapski is the most ready Rangers goaltending prospect to replace Talbot as backup, but two quality starts against the Buffalo freaking Sabres won’t be enough to convince Sather to add his $800k salary to the books when there will certainly be cheaper veteran replacements on the market. Assuming Skapski does make the team, we’re looking at a net goalie cap savings of $650k. As per league guidelines, the Rangers are not required to carry 23 players on the roster, so assuming the AHL demotion of Chris Summers and his $600k salary, that leaves the Rangers with $12.45m in cap space to accommodate 22 players at a minimum of $12.85m. The extra $400k could come from anywhere – a cheaper backup goalie, Stepan and Hagelin agreeing to cap-friendly deals like Zuccarello did, etc.

Final Outlook

So in a neat little fantasy exercise, this blog solved the Rangers’ cap issues for next season and beyond. Of course, the real world is never that convenient. The projections we made are reasonable, but the realm of possibility is wide.

What if Derek Stepan demands $7.0m? What if Miller and Fast re-sign and completely regress next season, necessitating more call-ups and/or veteran acquisitions? What if all that happens, and to top it off, Oscar Lindberg, Carl Klingberg, Brady Skjei, Dylan McIlrath, Conor Allen, and Mackenzie Skapski all show up to camp out of shape and unready for primetime, forcing Sather to gamble on more value vets?

It is unlikely that none of those young players will be ready to step up and add value to the big club next season, but on the other hand, the Rangers were extremely fortunate to have three different prospects fill depth roles this season, and actually exceed the production of the veterans they replaced. Can that happen again? Does it even need to? Well, yes and no. The Rangers depth needs will not be as great next season, but assuming Marty walks, Miller, Fast, or Hayes (at wing) will have to prove that they can regularly fill a top six role for an entire season. Hayes is likely there already, but the Rangers need him at Center. Many believe that top Russian prospect Pavel Buchnevich is ready right now to be a top six forward in the NHL, but he just signed for another season in the KHL. Other than that issue, the team just needs a prospect to fill a fourth line checking role, a 7th Defenseman role, and possibly a backup goalie spot. The stakes are not high, and given the Rangers’ past success in graduating prospects year to year, it’s a good probability that one or two rookies will be ready next season in limited ice time.

But if more cap space is needed, and by all accounts it shouldn’t be much more, even in a worst-case scenario (i.e. the cap not rising to $71m), the last resort is to trade Keith Yandle at the draft and re-sign Hunwick at cap-friendly dollars, easily fitting the rest of the team under the cap. That does require Sather to locate more cap space the following season if the Kreider/Hayes awesome nightmare scenario happens, but it would be a matter of $1m-$2m. Finding a way to trade Tanner Glass would solve that, and in today’s cap world, there are worse predicaments to be in than having to locate pocket change.

Of course, this projection largely reflects the team priorities of me and other Ranger fans. The major caveat here is that Glen Sather rarely does what you expect him to, for better or worse. He’s like the Bilbo Baggins of hockey GMs, and I’m not just talking about the uncanny resemblance. He’s a risk taker, a gold chaser, a ring taker and dragon slayer. Which means that like other smart people with dreams or delusions of grandeur, he can alternate between strokes of genius and making you want to slap the glasses off his sugary old face.

What if he wants to bring Marty St. Louis back? What if he lets Carl Hagelin walk?

Fortunately, the UFA market this year is quite awful, and the only bad-risk player that I could imagine Sather going after, Chris Stewart, put together an impressive enough postseason that it’s likely Minnesota will re-sign him.

Despite the many variables, the truth is that there are far more scenarios than not where the Rangers can comfortably afford a team primarily made up of promising young players in their early to mid-20s who already have a wealth of postseason experience under their belt, and the chance to come away this Spring with a Stanley Cup.

Sather has a chance to set this team up to compete for a championship for the next 5-6 years and beyond, and in many ways he has already done that. All that’s left is to get Stepan, Hagelin, Kreider, and Hayes under long-term contract, and ensure that there is enough roster space to accommodate prospect graduation at a decent clip. It won’t be easy, but it is more than probable if the right steps are taken.

The Rangers are not in the cap predicament that other top teams such as the Bruins, Blackhawks, and Kings currently find themselves in. To keep the ship sailing forward, it will take great care but not intensive surgery, and that’s good news for Rangers fans.

Posted on May 24, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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