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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.

Latest grim Rangers moment: Brendan Smith on waivers

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So, uh, things are pretty terrible for the New York Rangers right now.

After a dire start to the season that left Alain Vigneault’s seat boiling hot, the Rangers rallied for a decent chunk of 2017-18, but that hard work is starting to look like it merely delayed the inevitable. Losses in seven of their last eight pushed the Rangers to last place in the Metropolitan Division, shifting the focus from what’s happening on the ice to who might get traded and who should be fired.

In case you’re wondering if Vigneault is the only person whose decisions have been under a harsh spotlight lately, consider today’s surprising Rangers transaction: Brendan Smith has reportedly been placed on waivers.

(The New York Post’s Larry Brooks first reported as much, while it’s been backed up by the likes of Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.)

The move lines up with the Rangers calling up defenseman Neal Pionk.

Waiving Smith is a serious indictment of the work of GM Jeff Gorton, whose shuffling of the Rangers defense has been costly, but not particularly effective.

Credit Smith with, if nothing else, putting together a fantastic contract year in 2016-17, a rebound the Rangers bought into in a big way by handing him a four year, $17.4 million contract in June. Mere months later, Smith isn’t even deemed useful enough to stick in Rangers’ flawed top six.

After averaging more than 20 minutes per game once the Rangers acquired him last season, it’s clear that Smith’s fallen out of favor, only logging 17:10 per contest. Smith hasn’t been scoring much (eight points in 44 games) and his possession stats have been pretty underwhelming.

About the only thing he’s done well is denying entries, as you can see via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data:

Dan Girardi‘s so-so (but honestly, better than expected) work with the Lightning is used as a comparison there for a reason: the Rangers made the reasonable decision to buy Girardi out this summer as part of a defensive makeover that’s looking a little disastrous right now.

(It would be foolish to assume another team would claim Smith, considering the four-year term of his problem contract.)

Consider this: the Rangers are committed to three costly defensemen for four seasons including 2017-18: Smith ($4.35M), Marc Staal ($5.7M), and Kevin Shattenkirk ($6.65M). The outlook seems grim for that trio, with the most optimistic thought being that Shattenkirk could be more effective once he heals up after playing through an injury that required surgery.

The Rangers are probably going to need to pony up for pending RFA Brady Skjei (expiring deal after this season) and then key blueliner Ryan McDonagh, whose solid $4.7M bargain dissolves after 2018-19.

Much is being made about what the Rangers want for Rick Nash and/or Michael Grabner, possibly among others, when it comes to trades. For all the talk about landing draft picks and assets, you wonder if the Rangers might relax such prices if a team would take on a problem contract?

For teams around the league, this is another reminder that contract years can be tricky, especially with small sample sizes (Smith only played in 18 regular season games and 12 postseason contests for the Rangers) and players who aren’t necessarily “core players.” Considering how reluctant the Red Wings have been to trade away all but the most obvious players, maybe it should have been a red flag that they were OK with shuttling Smith out of town?

Either way, these are very troubling times for the Rangers, and moves like these make it tougher to see light at the end of the tunnel.

The team’s press release is … interesting.

One team that might be especially happy about this is the Carolina Hurricanes, as this takes some of the focus away from their own mistake: taking Marcus Kruger off the Chicago Blackhawks’ hands.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at New York Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with Wednesday Night Rivalry as the New York Rangers play host to the Boston Bruins at 8 p.m. ET.

[Click here for the Live Stream]

Projected Lineups and starting goalies

Boston Bruins
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Spooner
Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes
Tim SchallerSean Kuraly – Austin Czarnik

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt GrzelcykAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

[NHL on NBCSN: Bruins, Rangers heading in opposite directions]

New York Rangers
Rick NashMika ZibanejadMats Zuccarello
J.T. MillerDavid DesharnaisVinni Lettieri
Michael GrabnerKevin HayesJesper Fast
Cody McLeod – Peter HollandPaul Carey

Ryan McDonaghTony DeAngelo
Brady SkjeiNick Holden
Brendan SmithSteve Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist