The New York Rangers have undergone one of the most significant transformations in the league this offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and the good fortune that saw them move to No. 2 in the draft lottery where they selected Kaapo Kakko.
It has drastically changed the look of the team on the ice, both for the long-term and the short-term, and also significantly altered their salary cap structure.
With the new contracts for Panarin and Trouba adding $19.6 million to their salary cap number (for the next seven years) it currently has the Rangers over the cap for this season while still needing to re-sign three restricted free agents, including Pavel Buchnevich who is coming off of a 21-goal performance in only 64 games.
Obviously somebody is going to have to go at some point over the next year, and it remains entirely possible that “somebody” could be veteran forward Chris Kreider given his contract situation and the team’s new salary cap outlook.
Perhaps even as soon as this summer by way of a trade.
What makes it so complicated for Kreider and the Rangers is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a significant pay raise from his current $4.6 million salary cap number.
It is a tough situation for general manager Jeff Gorton and new team president John Davidson to tackle.
If you are looking at things in a more short-term window there is at least a decent argument for trying to keep Kreider this season, and perhaps even beyond. For one, he is still a really good player. He scored 28 goals this past season, still brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and is still an important part of the roster.
Even though the Rangers missed the playoffs by a significant margin this past season (20 points back) they are not that far away from being able to return to the postseason. Maybe even as early as this season if everything goes absolutely perfect. They added a top-10 offensive player in the league (Panarin), a top-pairing defender (Trouba), another promising young defender with potential (Fox), a potential superstar (Kakko), and still have a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) that can change a season if he is on top of his game. It is not a given, and not even likely, but the window is at least starting to open.
Even if they do not make it this season they are not so far away that Kreider could not still be a potentially productive member of that next playoff team.
The salary cap situation will be complicated, but the Rangers can easily trim elsewhere in a variety of ways, whether it be utilizing the second buyout window or trading another, less significant part of the roster. As we just saw this past week, there is no contract in the NHL that is completely unmovable.
They COULD do it.
But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, and that is the big issue the Rangers have to face with one of their most important players.
Should they keep him and try to sign him to a new long-term contract?
For as good as Kreider still is, and for as much as the Rangers have improved this summer, they still have to think about the big-picture outlook.
That means separating what a player has done for you from what that player will do for you in the future. For a team like the Rangers that is still building for something beyond this season, the latter part is the only thing that matters.
The reality of Kreider’s situation is that he is going to be 29 years old when his next contract begins, will be making significantly more than his current salary, and is almost certainly going to be on the threshold of a significant decline in his production (assuming it has not already started).
Let’s try to look at this as objectively as possible.
Kreider just completed his age 27 season, has played 470 games in the NHL, and averaged 0.29 goals per game and 0.59 points per game for his career.
There were 12 forwards in the NHL this past season that had similar numbers through the same point in their careers (at least 400 games played, at least 0.25 goals per game, and between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game). That list included Adam Henrique, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Drew Stafford, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Staal, David Perron, Lee Stempniak, and Kyle Turris.
This is not a perfect apples to apples comparison here because a lot of the players in that group play different styles and have different skillsets. They will not all age the exact same way or see their talents deteriorate in the same way. But what should concern the Rangers is that almost every one of the players on that list that is currently over the age of 30 has seen their production fall off a cliff. Some of them now carry contracts that look regrettable for their respective teams.
It is pretty much a given that as a player gets closer to 30 and plays beyond that their production is going to decline. Teams can get away with paying elite players into their 30s because even if they decline their production is still probably going to be better than a significant part of the league. Maybe Panarin isn’t an 80-point player at age 30 or 31, but it is a good bet he is still a 65-or 70-point player and a legitimate top-line winger.
Players like Kreider that aren’t starting at that level don’t have as much wiggle room, and when they decline from their current level they start to lose some (or even a lot) of their value.
[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]
Given the Rangers’ salary cap outlook, that is probably a risk they can not afford to take with Kreider long-term because it is far more likely that a new contract becomes an albatross on their cap than a good value.
You also have to consider that the Rangers have long-term options at wing that will quickly push Kreider down the depth chart.
Panarin is one of the best wingers in the league. Over the past two years they used top-10 picks in potential impact wingers (Kaako this year and Vitali Kravtsov a year ago). Buchnevich just turned 24 and has already shown 20-goal potential in the NHL.
As Adam Herman at Blueshirt Banter argued immediately after the signing of Panarin, committing more than $6 million per year to a winger that, in the very near future, may only be the fourth or fifth best winger on the team is a very questionable (at best) move in a salary cap league and gives them almost zero margin for error elsewhere on the roster.
Right now Kreider still has a lot of value to the Rangers for this season. He is probably making less than his market value, is still one of their best players, and still makes them better right now.
But when you look at the situation beyond this season his greatest value to them probably comes in the form of a trade chip because it not only means they can acquire an asset (or two) whose career better aligns with their next best chance to compete for a championship, but it also means they do not have to pay a soon-to-be declining, non-elite player a long-term contract into their 30s, a situation that almost never works out favorably for the team.
The Rangers have had to trade some key players and make some tough decisions during this rebuild.
They should be strongly considering making the same decision with Kreider.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.