Why a bright future should push Rangers to be aggressive in the present

Why a bright future should push Rangers to be aggressive in the present
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Following the 2020 NHL Draft and the first week of free agency, the Rangers made their biggest offseason headlines by buying out Henrik Lundqvist and selecting Alexis Lafreniere first overall. In short, you might say they waved goodbye to the past and said hello to the future. But what about the present?

Let’s look back at the Rangers’ offseason, ponder their potential for 2020-21, and then look at their larger future.

Reviewing the Rangers’ offseason

In actuality, the Rangers wish they could truly wave goodbye to the past. If you look at their near-$13 million in buyout money (from Lundqvist to Kevin Shattenkirk to Dan Girardi), you’ll see past mistakes haunting them.

No doubt, recent expenditures make it harder to maneuver. Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba experienced wildly different debut seasons with the Rangers, but however you slice it, they cost almost $20M combined. You could say that Chris Kreider‘s $6.5M extension kicking in serves as the equivalent to a free agent signing.

So, much of the work is a grind. On Thursday, the Rangers signed defenseman Anthony DeAngelo to a two-year, $9.6M contract, and locked down Alexandar Georgiev to a $2.425M cap hit. With Brendan Lemieux and more prominently Ryan Strome to sign as RFAs, the Rangers’ cap space is dwindling.

Naturally, there’s still time for moves.

Yet, as it stands, it’s a little troubling that the Rangers didn’t do a whole lot to improve after being exposed pretty badly by the Carolina Hurricanes during the Qualifying Round.

Frankly, you can make a very real argument that signing Jack Johnson counts as subtraction by addition. Time and time again, teams get burned by investing in the deeply limited defenseman. For a Rangers team that mainly just won the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery and spent a ton of money to get rid of Henrik Lundqvist, it stings.

(Selling very low on Lias Andersson? That also stings.)

If you’re going to great lengths to get Lundqvist off the books, shouldn’t you pair that PR challenge with moves that justify the heartache?

Maybe the Rangers aren’t done (beyond signing or addressing Strome), though. Consider why they should at least debate making aggressive moves.

With great young players comes responsibility to ponder opportunities

At this moment, the best argument for the Rangers improving boils down to younger players taking steps forward. While Adam Fox will face a challenge in topping his rookie season, the Rangers certainly hope for better things from Kaapo Kakko as a sophomore. (Frankly, his rookie campaign was downright discouraging.) There are other interesting young players, including Filip Chytil.

And, of course, there’s Alexis Lafreniere. The first pick of the 2020 NHL Draft is believed to be an instant impact player, possibly someone who could slot in on a first line from day one.

Interestingly, though, there’s an argument for impatience when you land such young talent.

With earnings artificially lowered by rookie maximums and entry-level contracts, Kakko and Fox will never be cheaper than they are through 2021-22. Lafreniere’s contract gives you a three-year window where he’ll be dirt cheap.

If that wasn’t enough to make the Rangers get fidgety, consider some of the non-ELC bargains. Mika Zibanejad remains the gift that keeps giving for the Rangers extending from that comically lopsided Derick Brassard trade. (Honestly, Rangers receiving the better draft pick in that trade adds a bonus punchline.)

But, eventually, that gift will become more costly. Zibanejad’s bargain $5.35M cap hit runs out after 2021-22.

Whether one or both of Igor Shesterkin and Georgiev stick as Rangers goalies, both are only locked down short-term. Shesterkin, in particular, could earn a lot more money on his next contract (his current deal expires after 2020-21).

Could trades be the best way to improve for Rangers during offseason?

Look up and down that Rangers roster, and you’ll largely see players who are either on the way out, or will cost a lot more money soon. For every Brendan Smith coming off the books, there’s a Pavel Buchnevich hovering for a possible raise.

So maybe the key really is to strike soon, if not now?

While the 2020 NHL Free Agent market is already pretty shallow, the Rangers could throw their weight around as one of the league’s richest teams. Much like the Canucks plucking Nate Schmidt from the cap-challenged Golden Knights, maybe there’s room for the Rangers to take a “problem” off of some team’s hands?

Take, say, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

As one of the NHL’s brightest organizations, the Hurricanes likely understand Hamilton’s value. If Hamilton avoided injuries in 2019-20, he might have finished as a Norris Trophy finalist. Ideally, the Hurricanes wouldn’t even sweat his future.

But Hamilton is entering a contract year, and the defense-rich Hurricanes might not be able to make a future contract work. He also receives $6M in salary vs. his $5.75M cap hit, so the cost-conscious Hurricanes might also have that number in mind.

Maybe the Hurricanes would rather get something for Hamilton now, rather than worrying about watching him walk for nothing in Free Agency?

If I were in Rangers GM Jeff Gorton‘s shoes, these are the types of players I’d be targeting. (Please note that there aren’t really any pressing Hamilton rumors. But also note that Schmidt’s name wasn’t really flying around there, either.)

Generally speaking, the Rangers have done a marvelous job rebuilding. Some moves (Hart-tier Panarin) worked better than others (is Trouba salvageable?), but they’ve both enjoyed luck and made their own.

Still, sports are funny. Sometimes you don’t realize you had a window to win until it’s too late. At minimum, the Rangers should explore all offseason options to make the most of the opportunities at hand.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.