I think I caught a number of people by surprise when I ranked Danny Kristo ninth in my prospect rankings back in July. Kristo came to the Rangers with a good amount of hype. He was one of the few standouts at the Traverse City tournament, showed some flashes of skill in the pre-season, and started the year on Hartford seemingly scoring at will. In fact, in my January rankings I had him third overall. In that article you can read the specifics of where and how things started to go downhill for Kristo in the second half of the season, but the end result is that, by summertime, a handful of other players had leapfrogged Kristo on the depth chart.
Now, going into the 2014-2015 training camp, it’s clearly an uphill battle for Kristo to make the Rangers’ lineup. He’s not a player with the makeup for fourth-line minutes, and there’s stiff competition in J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, and Oscar Lindberg. One could also argue that college free agent signings Ryan Haggerty and Chris McCarthy shouldn’t be completely written off, either. With those guys alone, cracking the Rangers’ lineup out of training camp was plausible but perhaps ambitious. That’s before accounting for yesterday’s signing of Kevin Hayes, which could be a critical blow to Kristo’s chances.
Even still, a spot or two is there for the taking. If Kristo really impresses the coaching staff and proves to be deserving of a place in the NHL then there’s no reason he won’t receive it. But given the number of previously mentioned players – particularly the three or four who might have an edge on him right now – it seems more likely that Kristo does NOT make the team.
This could create a bit of a problem for the Rangers. Sure, at face value Kristo going back to the AHL at 24 wouldn’t be the end of the world. Plenty of skilled wingers did not crack the NHL until their mid-20s. Martin St. Louis, Matt Moulson, and P.A. Parenteau are three examples. At the surface, this would be a setback, but hardly an insurmountable one.
The situation is more complicated than that, however, thanks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and some of its rules regarding free agency. Kristo accepted the Rangers’ qualifying offer, meaning that he is on a one-year contract for this season and is theoretically a restricted free-agent again next summer. I say “theoretically” because there are a few conditions to that being the case. The most common route to free agency consists of players who are at least 27 years old or have been in the NHL for seven or more seasons. This is how Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, and Anton Stralman became free agents. Those players are known as “Group Three” free agents.
There is another category, however, known as “Group Six” free agency. Skaters who are 25 years old by June 30th of that particular offseason, have played in fewer than 80 NHL games, and have played at least three professional seasons can opt to become an unrestricted free agent immediately. A “season” is defined as playing at least 11 regular season or playoff game at the professional level (NHL, AHL, ECHL, etc.) as an 18- or 19-year-old or playing one regular season or playoff game at 20 or older.
As luck would have it, Kristo falls into this group. He signed with the Canadiens as a 22-year-old after his senior year of college in 2012 and played nine games with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL. Last season was with the Wolf Pack, of course. That makes the 2014-2015 Kristo’s third “professional season.” Unless he plays 80 or more games in the NHL, Kristo can opt to become an unrestricted free agent.
This puts the Rangers in an awkward spot. Kristo could earn a call-up in December and stick the rest of the way, but still could depart. Hell, he could make the team out of training camp and play the entire season with the Rangers, but pull a muscle and miss just enough time to not meet that 80-game minimum. And that is still assuming the best for Kristo this season.
Let’s go with the premise that Kristo is sent to Hartford, as seems likely, to start the year, and doesn’t play more than 25 NHL games; a number that might even still be optimistic. They could convince him to stay and re-sign, perhaps, but that seems unlikely. It’s already a crowded situation on the wings, and the 2015-2016 arrivals of Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich won’t do him any favors. Why would he choose to remain buried in New York when he could sign with one of a dozen other teams that would offer him a much better opportunity?
The most realistic situation is this: Kristo starts the year in Hartford, MAYBE earns a call-up or two and plays in 5-8 NHL games, and walks away next summer. With that in mind, where do the Rangers go from here? Keeping a player with upside like that in the AHL for a year before losing him without compensation seems like a total waste. It would appear to be best, at this point, to shop Kristo around and see what his market is. However, any team that acquires Kristo would also be acquiring this same predicament. Most teams won’t be able to guarantee 80+ games to Kristo, and so who is going to give up a significant asset for an unproven player who could walk next July?
Certainly there would be some teams who would take a low-risk gamble and offer Glen Sather a 6th- or maybe even 5th-round pick. But at that point is it even worth it for the Rangers? If that’s the best return, then Gordie Clark could decide that the team might as well ride it out and see if Kristo can beat the odds and play those 80+ games with the Rangers. Or see if they can convince him to re-sign regardless.
Glen Sather, as we have seen time and time again, is a magician when it comes to trades. He seems to find leverage in situations where he has no business having any leverage. He did manage to trade Ethan Werek’s rights a month before the Rangers were to lose them and managed to get Oscar Lindberg back from the Coyotes in return. There is precedence here. As things stand, though, it seems like the Rangers have limited options here. Barring something special from Kristo this fall, Kristo will seemingly be an unfortunate victim of numbers this season; the Rangers then the victim of contractual circumstance next summer.
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