This is weird territory for the Rangers, and, as a result, me. Usually, the Rangers get bounced in the first or second round – one time it was the Eastern Conference Finals. Then we spend a good chunk of time reflecting on the season and what just transpired before eventually transitioning into the offseason.
But Glen Sather and Rangers’ management, having just watched their team fight until the bitter end of the NHL season, are in a very different situation from the past. The buyout period begins on Monday; only days after the Rangers’ campaign ended. On June 25th, about a dozen days from now, teams lose exclusive negotiating rights with their free agents and those players can talk to any teams (though they can’t officially sign anywhere else until July 1st; still quickly approaching). In two weeks, including today, the NHL Draft will occur. Obviously, the Rangers have had plenty of meetings and concocted much of their game-plan behind the scenes. No chance they’re leaving this all to the last minute. Still, the Rangers have a smaller timeframe to really put things in motion, and thus we here at The New York Rangers Blog do as well. So let’s waste no time and start digging into some of the pressing issues for this offseason. On a macro level, how do the Rangers fit the players they want to keep (Spoiler alert: they probably can not keep all of them)? On a micro level, which free agents (or special cases worth noting) do you sacrifice and which do you keep? I’ll aim to cover all of these players in the next week or so and try to fit the puzzle together. We’ll start with an easy case; Brad Richards, who is not a free agent but certainly is on the chopping block as much as anyone, given the unique circumstances.
Age: Turned 34 in May
Contract Status: Under Contract, Six Years at $6.66M Cap Hit with No-Movement Clause
Basic 2013-2014 Stats: 82 Games, 20 Goals, 31 Assists (25 Games, Five Goals, Seven Assists in Playoffs)
Irrelevant Info Pierre McGuire Would Enjoy: Richards dressed as a vampire for Halloween when he was eight years old.
Why You Keep Him:
Because people are generally dramatic and ridiculous, Richards will inevitably get grouped in with Wade Redden and Chris Drury. When both of those guys were bought out, it was not merely that they were overpaid. It was that both had declined to the point that they were, at absolute maximum, fringe NHLers. Forget their contracts. Even at a third of the price, both guys had outlived their usefulness for a competitive NHL team.
Brad Richards is not at that point, at least not yet. Maybe he’s not the player he once was, and there is little chance his play is going to match that $6.66M cap hit ever again, but he’s still a productive player who brings a whole lot of things – tangible and intangible – to the table. He scored 20 goals this season and surpassed the 50-point mark. Both numbers put him within the top-40 among NHL.com’s (somewhat unreliable) list of centers. He had a +2.5 Corsi Relative on a high possession team against some significant opposition (though zone starts certainly helped him out). He was a decent 49.8% in the faceoff circle.
Then there’s the more abstract capacities in which he’s valued. If he wasn’t already the true leader in the locker room the last few years, then he surely assumed the role after Ryan Callahan’s dismissal. The value of “playoff experience” and the like is usually well overblown, but in the case of Richards he truly did bring plenty to the table in terms of keeping the ship afloat and making sure the younger guys were in a good place. Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Michael Del Zotto are only a few of the players who have come out and said as much, helping them through struggles. His proactive approach to acclimating Martin St. Louis to the team and helping him through his goal drought is well-documented. Maybe Richards is not worth that $6.66M, but he’s certainly brought the value, accounting for all he brings to the table, of a player in the $4M range. Still a valuable commodity for a Rangers’ team that was close to winning a Stanley Cup and will have a legitimate stake in fighting to win it all the next few seasons.
Why You Lose Him:
If this was a criminal trial, right here would be the part where the prosecuting attorney rips the defense to shreds as the defense desperately and unsuccessfully objects to every question.
Richards certainly had his moments in the playoffs. A few barnstorming performances against the Flyers. The Game Seven winner against the Penguins. Overall, though, his performance was ugly. That 2.5% Corsi Relative in the regular season plummeted to -4.4 in the postseason. To be fair, Kreider’s initial absence and him being forced to center some makeshift lines including Carcillo/Miller/Fast didn’t help. But he didn’t really get much better in that department when Kreider returned. He was only a positive in nine of 25 postseason games, and put up some really ugly ones. A -17.5 in Game Two against the Canadiens. A -13 and -43.5 in Games Four and Seven respectively. In the Final, he posted a -25.1 and -37.7 in Games Two and Three respectively. The Rangers’ possession numbers against the Kings were not pretty, but broken down it wasn’t really a top-to-bottom issue. Rather, Richards’ line was doing most of the damage themselves, and while that was not only Richards’ doing, he is the center. He can’t even be saved with his scoring stats; five goals and seven assists are not going to convince anyone to ignore the possession stats in favor of production. Not for a guy anchoring a scoring line and playing the point on the top powerplay unit, at least.
And this is all before we even get into the salary cap implications. Solely looking at 2014-2015, the Rangers have a whole slew of players who need to be signed (whom I will be covering in future articles). Zuccarello, Brassard, Stralman, and Kreider are only the headliners of a whole number of players Glen Sather will look to re-sign. Add in Lundqvist and Girardi’s extensions, which kick in this summer, and any additional players Sather might want to add to improve the team, and the cap space has to come from somewhere. If we want to oversimplify the situation and declare that it’s either cut the cord on Richards or on three other important players, then it’s not likely going to be a favorable outcome for Richards. Losing one guy, even if valuable in his own way, is a lot easier to manage than retooling an entire roster to compensate for the departure of the multiple guys who were axed instead.
The biggest blow, however, is the cap recapture situation. I highly recommend reading this writeup by Cap Geek, but the quick, dumbed down version is this: Because of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Rangers would not be absolved of Richards’ cap hit should he retire, as was the case under the previous CBA. Rather, they will be hit with a penalty that equals a large portion of what his cap hit was. Again, you can read about how that is calculated in the article, but here’s their convenient tool which will calculate the numbers for you. For instance, if Richards decides to retire at 37 in 2017, then the Rangers will be hit with a $5.66M cap penalty for the next three seasons. Even with an increasing salary cap, that’s a dead weight that will be hard to work around. Even a trade won’t solve the problem, as the CBA anticipated such a move. Thus, the Rangers AND the team he was moved to would be hit with penalties.
The one “get out of jail free” card the NHL handed to teams were amnesty buyouts; they can rid themselves of two players and, while still paying them their salary, will have their cap hits completely removed from the books. The Rangers already used one on Wade Redden, and can do so one more time. The one caveat is that teams were given a two-year period to take advantage of them, and thus it’s a “use it or lose it” scenario this summer. With a longer shelf life maybe the Rangers keep Richards on board for another year and deal with the situation next offseason. They don’t have that luxury, unfortunately, and so it’s cut bait right now or have no way out of the consequences that will come with Richards’ cap recapture. With those two extremes as the only options, it’s a no-brainer which is the fiscal choice. I can’t imagine that Glen Sather will think differently, even if he likes Richards and wishes he could keep him.
Barring a stunning turn of events, the Rangers will need to find a new top-nine center to take Richards’ place. Brian Boyle is brilliant at what he does but is in no way that man. Dominic Moore showed he won’t sink the team as a third-line center in spot duty, but a team looking to contend needs to be more ambitious.
Internally, the Rangers have a couple options who have any business being on the radar. One is J.T. Miller. Miller was dominant in the AHL and had flashes of relevance at the NHL level. At 21, though, he’ll be much more matured as a person and hockey player going into next season. It’s hard to really predict how much so, however. Look at the dramatic improvement Chris Kreider made from last season to this season. But then also look at how Evgeny Grachev never made that next step. Projecting timelines and development is tricky and, ultimately, inexact, but Miller has done enough at the pro level and even NHL level to give credence to the belief that he’ll be ready to compete for a top-nine role out of training camp. The other question is whether, if his place is in the NHL at all, if he can handle the responsibilities of a center, rather than slotting on the wing.
Oscar Lindberg is the other option, and though he didn’t hit the ground running as a pro like Miller, he gradually evolved into Hartford’s most consistent forward last season. Eighteen goals and 44 points in 75 games are very respectable numbers for a 22-year-old playing for the first time in North America. The bulk of those numbers came in the second half of the season as well. He’s phenomenal in the faceoff circle and very good in his own end. He can play the PK. Compared to Miller, Lindberg plays a calm, matured game and might be a more traditional 3rd-line center, allowing Stepan and Brassard to take on more offensive responsibility. Handing an important role on a contending team to a guy with zero NHL experience is risky for obvious reasons, but Lindberg has the kind of talent and demeanor to handle it.
There could be some external options, though that depends on a whole number of factors. Primarily it depends on the salary cap, what players Sather retains, and at what numbers those players are retained at. The “sexy” candidate is Jason Spezza, who has formally requested a trade away from Ottawa. The first obstacle is his no-trade clause and whether he’d even accept a trade to New York, but beyond that; if fitting Richards would be hard for next season, then it won’t be any easier making room for Spezza’s $7M cap hit. Then there’s the problem of assets. The Rangers have emptied the cupboard bringing in Nash and St. Louis. The farm system lacks the high-end talent Ottawa would want and the team has no first-round picks to offer until 2016. It’s not impossible, but banking on Spezza would be naive.
Paul Stastny is a player the Rangers have been linked to often, even if only in speculation. The 28-year-old put up 25 goals and 60 points on a talented, though terrible possession team in Colorado. With the Rangers he should, in theory, match those numbers if not surpass them. Again, the problem is fitting him on the payroll. He’s clearly the best center on the market and can more or less name his price. The Rangers’ hope would be that the appeal of New York City and the chance to play on a contender would mean Stastny considers a paycut. He wouldn’t be the first player to make that sacrifice. Even still, it would probably take some creative accounting to fit him.
The most realistic option is probably Mikhail Grabovski. Grabovski, 30, had 13 goals and 35 points in 51 games with a Capitals team that was in shambles. The appeal of Grabovski is that he’s similar to Benoit Pouliot; his possession numbers speak of a player who is better than his point totals indicate. On a high-possession team like the Rangers who would complement him with players who fit his style, Grabovski could, again in theory, thrive. Luring him to New York with a three year, $11.5M-$14M deal is realistic and also much easier to fit under the salary cap. Getting similar or better production from him as Richards provided at a fraction of the price would allow the team to address other areas without a significant downgrade at center. It would then be up to St. Louis, Girardi, McDonagh, and others to take on responsibility in the locker room.
I’ll be doing this for the remaining free agents. Feel free to share your thoughts below, with my only request that you be respectful and keep perspective. Regardless of your thoughts on Richards as a hockey player and/or how his tenure as a Ranger went, he certainly gave his best effort and had some great moments. The Rangers made that leap to contender since his arrival in 2012 and he was not a negligible part of that. His presence (assuming Sather makes the obvious decision here) will be missed, even if his best hockey is behind him, and I’m sure he’ll make an impact wherever he plays next.
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