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It’s New York Rangers day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers. 

2017-18:

34-39-9, 77 pts. (8th Metropolitan Division; 12th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

IN:

Frederik Claesson

OUT:

David Desharnais
Paul Carey
Dan Catenacci
Ryan Sproul
Ondrej Pavelec
Peter Holland

RE-SIGNED:

Ryan Spooner
Vladislav Namestikov
Jimmy Vesey
Kevin Hayes
Brady Skjei
John Gilmour
Boo Nieves
Cody McLeod
Ryan O’Gara
Chris Bigras

– – –

You could kind of feel that the season the New York Rangers had last year was a long-time coming.

[Rangers Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions

The team was getting a little too stale, a little too over-reliant on the heroics of Henrik Lundqvist night-in and night-out, plagued by years invested in players whose names didn’t match their talent level anymore and a coach who couldn’t seem to find the next gear with the team he had.

When the burden atop Lundqvist’s shoulders became too much to bear after the ball dropped in Time Square to usher in 2018, the Rangers simply imploded with him.

And so the purge began, long before the 2017-18 season came to a close — on Feb. 8, when the team announced that it was game over and before any more coins could be dropped into the machine, a rebuild would have to take place.

In hindsight, it started to happen before the season began. They had already shipped out Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta prior to last year’s NHL Draft for the No. 7 pick, which they used to snag Lias Andersson.

At the trade deadline several months later, the Rangers swung the blockbuster of the season, sending Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning in return for Vladislav Namestikov, two prospects and a pick.

The move capped off a wild year in the Big Apple. The Rangers sold off Rick Nash, Nick Holden and Michael Grabner while amassing roster players, picks and prospects.

Here is the complete list (thanks to PHT’s Adam Gretz):

  • 2017 first-round pick (from Arizona — used to select Andersson)
  • 2018 first-round pick (Boston)
  • 2018 first-round pick (Tampa Bay)
  • 2018 second-round pick (New Jersey)
  • 2018 third-round pick (Boston)
  • 2019 conditional second-round pick (Tampa Bay — would become another first-round pick if Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup this season or next season)
  • 2019 seventh-round pick
  • Vladislav Namestnikov
  • Ryan Spooner
  • Matt Beleskey
  • Anthony DeAngelo
  • Ryan Lindgren
  • Libor Hajek
  • Brett Howden
  • Ygor Rykov
  • Rob O'Gara

They also said goodbye to their old coaching staff after firing Alain Vigneault and replacing him with David Quinn from Boston University fame. He takes the reins at a perfect time for the Rangers, given his apparent ability to develop young players.

A rebuild, then, from top to bottom.

It’s also meant a pretty uneventful summer in the import category, other than Quinn’s hiring.

Fredrik Claesson, signed on July 1, is the only player brought in that has played NHL games. But the Rangers made some good decisions in re-signing a swath of restricted free agents in Jimmy Vesey, Ryan Spooner, Kevin Hayes, Namestikov, Brady Skjei, John Gilmour, Boo Nieves and Rob O’Gara.

New York’s forward contingent this season doesn’t look half bad on paper, but it’s on defense where things get a bit hairy.

Kevin Shattenkirk had knee surgery in January, ending his first season in a blue shirt, and while he’s probable for the start of the season, you never know how those are going to turn out. The Rangers are certainly hoping a healthy Shattenkirk and return to the same form that they saw when they gave him a four-year extension with a full no-movement clause. The last thing the Rangers need during a rebuild is having to eat a contract that was supposed to be the defenseman that solidified their top-four.

The Rangers gave up the second most shots per game (35.3) and the fourth most goals-against per game (263), so those numbers certainly need to improve if the goal is not to have the aging Lundqvist put in a bad spot each night.

That said, the expectation that the Rangers compete for a playoff spot is probably a futile one. The team is rebuilding, and to do it right means to take it slow. They’ve trimmed a lot of fat in a short period of time, but youth needs time to develop and shouldn’t be rushed.

Prospect Pool:

  • Lias Andersson, C/LW, 19, Frolunda/Hartford (SHL/AHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Perhaps the readiest of all of New York’s prospects, Andersson blends a strong two-way game with impressive speed, skill and shooting abilities. He got seven games with the Rangers at the end of the season, scoring once and adding an assist, had 14 points in 22 games in the Swedish Elite League with Frolunda, and in 25 games with the Wolfpack in the American Hockey League, posting 14 points in 25 games. There’s a spot open for him on the opening day roster if he wants it.

  • Filip Chytil, C, 18, CSKA Moscow (KHL) – 2017 first-round pick

There’s an argument that Chytil is just as ready for the Show as Andersson, perhaps slightly more. Chytil got nine total games with the Rangers, including making the team out of training camp last season. He posted a goal and two assists combined in his time with the Rangers and played most of the season in Hartford where he had 11 goals and 31 points in 46 games. Chytil also had four points in seven games with the Czech Republic at the world juniors and then two additional points at the world championships. Like Andersson, there’s room for Chytil providing he can make an impression in training camp.

  • Vitali Kravtsov, RW, 18, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Rangers have a lot of skilled first round picks, don’t they? Kravtsov is their latest, taken ninth overall this past June. The kid is big, too. He’s 6-foot-4 and 183 pounds with plenty of room to fill out. He won the Aleksei Cherepanov Award for the KHL’s best rookie and set a playoff record for a junior-aged player with 16 points. He was named rookie of the month twice and rookie of the week three times and will be back with Traktor to begin next season after signing an extension in July. Assuming all goes well, he could play with the Rangers by years’ end depending on how far Traktor makes it in the Gagarin Cup.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Rangers give Brady Skjei Tom Wilson money, basically

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The New York Rangers avoided what could have been a tricky salary arbitration case by signing Brady Skjei to a six-year contract on Saturday. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Skjei’s cap hit will be $5.25 million per season.

Hockey Twitter is still probably batting the Tom Wilson contract around as we speak – spoiler: it’s about as divisive as the pesty player himself – so it only seems natural to compare Skjei’s contract to that of Wilson. Even if it wasn’t fresh on the mind, the parallels would be tough to dismiss, because they’re very similar.

Wilson: six years, $31M ($5,166,666 per season).
Skjei: six years, $31.5M ($5.25M per season).

So yeah, as you can see, it’s a $500K difference over the life of the contract. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the two are related in anyway, but their proximity to each other makes it difficult not to make the comparison (and, if you’re the type, to make unflattering jokes for one or both sides).

The parallels pretty much stop at the contracts, though. Skjei is a big, talented defenseman who’s already shown some possession prowess, although the 23-year-old has enjoyed some cushy zone starts at times. Kevin Shattenkirk was by far his most common defensive partner at even strength last season, according to Natural Stat Trick. If that stands and Shattenkirk is more effective as a healthier player, it would be reasonable to expect better results from Skjei as well.

Even if he’s already close to his ceiling instead of just scratching the surface, Skjei’s already shown signs of promise, and potential to meet or exceed the value of his new contract. He scored 39 points during what was his first, impressive full season in the NHL in 2016-17, and while his numbers slipped a bit in 2017-18 (25 points in 82 games), there were still things to like.

Personally, this seems like a very good – maybe great – value, as strong top-four defensemen (and possibly suitable top pairing ones) are only going to get more expensive as the years go on and the salary cap increases.

It’s worth noting that some are higher on Skjei than others, and it’s not merely a fancy stats vs. “old-school” divide.

Remarkably, this $5.25M clip only makes Skjei the Rangers’ third-most expensive defenseman from an AAV standpoint.

Via Cap Friendly, the Rangers are spending about $25M on their defensemen in 2018-19, although that could slip a bit if they demote one of the eight listed to the AHL. Either way, it’s an expensive group, with Shattenkirk ($6.65M through 2020-21) and Marc Staal ($5.7M through 2020-21) making more than Skjei, while Brendan Smith isn’t too far behind at $4.35M through 2020-21.

It’s fair to say that, while Shattenkirk could easily turn things around – again, he was dealing with a bum wheel last season – the Rangers can’t be very happy with most of that defense spending as an openly rebuilding team. You wonder if they might try to throw an asset or two to another team (not unlike GMs liquidating assets by trading them to the Coyotes) to get rid of Staal and/or Smith. That could be especially prudent if the Rangers hope to make this a quick reset rather than a rebuild, as that cap space could theoretically go to Artemi Panarin and other hot-ticket items.

(How would Erik Karlsson or Ryan Ellis look in a Rangers sweater? Asking for a cigar-chomping friend.)

Whatever course the Rangers take, Skjei seems like he’s part of the solution, and this is a smart contract. In fact, it’s probably the best long-term deal the franchise currently has on the books, although Mika Zibanejad would spin a different story.

And, yes, it’s a better bet than giving nearly the same deal to Tom Wilson. Sorry, passionate Caps fans.

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.

Penguins’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the Pittsburgh Penguins put a bow on big defense spending by re-signing Jamie Oleksiak, one of the largest humans you’ll see roaming a blueline.

The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old to a three-year contract that will carry a $2,137,500 cap hit. He’s generally listed at 6-foot-7, which is just a couple inches shorter than Zdeno Chara.

(It only seems fair that he was frequently called upon to drop the mitts once he arrived from Dallas then, right?)

In a vacuum, it’s an inoffensive contract, although some will grimace a bit at giving three years to a potential depth defenseman. Your overall opinion of the big blueliner will vary depending upon how you value what he brings to the table. His size is valued by many, and he didn’t take on too much water from a possession standpoint.

There’s little denying that he enjoyed something of a career rejuvenation in Pittsburgh, echoing Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, even though his gritty style makes him quite different from those fleet-footed defensemen. After averaging just 15 minutes per game with the Stars, Oleksiak’s ice time shot up to an average of 17:24 in 41 contests with Pittsburgh.

That ice time plummeted during the postseason, as he only logged an average of 13:43 per contest.

We’ve seen teams get burned by handing an extension to a defenseman who thrived during a brief audition, such as Brendan Smith‘s disastrous turn with the Rangers, although the Penguins didn’t shell out as large of a cap hit here.

The larger concern might be that the Penguins could be guilty of a mistake a lot of contenders fall victim of: locking up a lot of depth players when it might be wiser to allow more room to scour the market for cheaper options in the bottom of the order. On the other hand, maybe Oleksiak will end up being another successful reclamation project in Pittsburgh?

Either way, the Penguins are locked in with quite a few defensemen, so substantial commitments abound.

It’s a pricey group, too. Via Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Penguins are spending almost $27M on seven defensemen: Oleksiak, Schultz, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel.

For some, that’s the price of doing business for a team not far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

Others will blanche at the thought that, at times, the Penguins overcome this group, rather than being propped up by it. Those critics surely won’t be over the moon about some of their recent commitments, especially oft-criticized Jack Johnson carrying a $3.25M cap hit mere months after the Blue Jackets couldn’t give him away during the trade deadline.

There are some red flags going on with that unit, and maybe the Oleksiak signing will be looked upon as a mistake.

Ultimately, it’s not the sort of decision that will derail the Penguins’ hopes for contending now and in the future. The worry, though, is that the mistakes might start to really pile up for the Pens. After all, flexibility can be crucial in the modern NHL, and GM Jim Rutherford risks painting himself into a corner.

(Then again, the Blackhawks reminded us today that you can often foist your cap problems on other teams, so maybe none of this is all that big of a concern?)

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.

Rangers’ Smith to AHL after clearing waivers

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NEW YORK (AP) The New York Rangers sent Brendan Smith to Hartford of the American Hockey League after the defenseman cleared waivers on Friday.

The move came one day after Smith – re-signed to a four-year, $17 million deal last June – was waived on his 29th birthday.

New York coach Alain Vigneault said captain Ryan McDonagh was out Friday night against Calgary due to an upper-body injury and could miss the team’s upcoming trip to Winnipeg and Minnesota. The Rangers will return to New York to visit the crosstown-rival Islanders next Thursday.

The Rangers called up John Gilmour from the AHL club and put him in the lineup against the Flames for his NHL debut. The 24-year-old defenseman had six goals and 20 assists in 44 games for the Wolf Pack this season.

Neal Pionk, called up from Hartford on Thursday, was also set to make his NHL debut, marking the first the the Rangers had two defensemen playing their initial games since Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy on Oct. 2, 2009, at Pittsburgh.

Defensemen Marc Staal (neck) and Kevin Shattenkirk (knee surgery) are also out, along with forwards Chris Kreider (blood clot), Pavel Buchnevich (concussion) and Jimmy Vesey (concussion).

New York has lost 11 of its last 15 games and began the day in last place in the tight Metropolitan Division, three points behind Columbus and the Islanders for the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Rangers embrace rebuild, dodge questions about Vigneault

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Apparently placing Brendan Smith on waivers was a prelude to some intriguing statements from New York Rangers management, as GM Jeff Gorton and promoted-GM-now-president Glen Sather acknowledged a rebuild today.

Granted, on the team website, the term is instead “retool.” (At least they didn’t say “we don’t rebuild, we reload,” right?)

“We have not played well for a while,” Gorton said, via the Rangers website. “It’s becoming increasingly clearer as the days go on that we’re in tough as we go forward for the playoffs. It’s the reality of having to look forward and the decisions that we make going forward will be based on long term and not trying to save the season.”

One question about the team’s future is: will embattled head coach Alain Vigneault be a part of it? Gorton didn’t give a firm answer, so today wasn’t exactly a full reset.

Here’s the full presser with Sather and Gorton:

The Rangers also released an official statement from the two executives. You can read the full release here, which included some mild humble-bragging about the team’s solid success (without a Stanley Cup) before warning of potential trades:

So as we do every season, we have been continuously evaluating our team, looking for areas that can be improved to enhance our chances of winning. We began the process of reshaping our team this past summer, when we traded for assets that we believe will help us in the years to come. As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.

Naturally, the question that fascinates us the most is: which familiar faces may they “lose?”

Most obviously, the Rangers are shopping pendings UFAs such as Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to land anywhere near the lofty assets they’re seeking. There’s also some question about players on short deals; both Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh see their deals expire after 2018-19, so would the team make the painful decision to move one or both?

(McDonagh, in particular, seems primed for a raise considering his relative bargain cap hit of $4.7 million.)

There are even questions about Henrik Lundqvist, whose $8.5M cap hit runs through 2020-21. At 35, the future Hall of Famer has to wonder how much longer he’ll be able to swing for that elusive Stanley Cup title.

It’s tough to imagine Lundqvist being moved, but beyond “King Henrik,” one has to wonder how many Rangers are safe. That’s especially true if another team would be willing to take on a problem contract like that of Smith or Marc Staal if it’s packaged with a quality young player like, say, J.T. Miller.

Rangers fans haven’t seen struggles like this in some time, and their bitterness is palpable. Fans want change, and unpopular trades could really sour the mood, especially if the team waffles regarding Vigneault.

Fans of the sport as a whole, however, must be fascinated with how all of this might pan out, and hopeful that their GMs can land some quality players, whether it means at the Feb. 26 trade deadline or during the offseason.

Buckle up.

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.