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Thursday, October 31, 2013

October RoundUp: Nash, Richards, Lundqvist, Prospal

   It's been an... ehrm... interesting start of the 2013-14 NY Rangers season. Let's talk about it. shall we?

   Rick Nash will need to go on Long Term Injury Reserve before NY has enough cap space to afford any relevant additional contract. If Nash is NOT going on LTIR, but not expected back within a month (as is Callahan), NY throwing $750,000 at, say, Vinny Prospal, would be about all they could do to replace big-forward minutes per game from injuries. If Nash DOES go on LTIR, it means this concussion could be a terrible terrible long-term injury, detrimental to Nash's future. He was injured 19 calendar days (7 games) ago, meaning he can be put retroactive onto LTIR on Friday Nov 1st. Nash's status has remained since the night of the incident, and there's no known recovery time projected. If Nash is indeed placed on LTIR, it will be the approximately same time Carl Hagelin is available to be removed from it, except Nash's LTIR 'replacement' players can have salary cap hit (s) up to $7.8 million. In other words: if Nash goes on LTIR, NY will no longer have a cap crunch, but rather, a large chunk of salary space suddenly available for mid-season acquisition. 

   As of October 31st heading into the Buffalo game, according to CapGeek, NYR can add $738,000 to the roster today, or $3.1 million at the trade deadline. Of course, as stated earlier, this is without Nash going on LTIR.

   Here's what the lineup will look like sometime in November, assuming Hagelin/Callahan return inNovember, and there are  (hopefully) no other injuries in the meantime:

Hagelin -------- Stepan -------- Callahan
Richards  ---- Brassard ------ Zuccarello
Pouliot -------- Boyle ----- Miller/Kreider
Dorsett ------- D. Moore --------- Pyatt

(Extra Forward: Mashinter)
(Injured: Nash)

McDonagh ----- Girardi
Staal ------------- Stralman
Del Zotto ------- J. Moore

(Extra Defense: Falk)

Lundqvist ----- Talbot

Powe (Buried)
Asham (Buried)

   If Nash goes on LTIR and is indeed out a significant stretch of time, NY can go out and get a hefty mid-season contract or two (via trade). Nash was 'expected' to produce, say, 40 goals this season. If his injury is proving to be as serious as it sounds, it will be upon Sather to try and replace Nash's offensive expectation at least partially if NY is to compete in the post-season dance.

   Let's take a look at some players slated to be Unrestricted Free Agents next July, particularly those on potential deadline-sellers:

Buffalo Sabres: W Matt Moulson ($3.133 million/year), C Steve Ott ($2.950 million/year)
Calgary Flames: C/W Mike Cammalleri ($6.00 million/year), W Lee Stempniak ($2.500 million/year), C Matt Stajan ($3.500 million/year)
Dallas Stars: W Ray Whitney ($4.500 million/year), 
Edmonton Oilers: W Ales Hemsky ($5.000 million/year), W Ryan Smyth ($2.250 million/year), W Ryan Jones ($1.500 million/year)
Florida Panthers: C Marcel Goc ($1.700 million/year), W Brad Boyes ($1.000 million/year), C Scott Gomez ($0.900 million/year)
Minnesota Wild: W Dany Heatley ($7.500 million/year)
Phoenix Coyotes: W Radim Vrbata ($3.000 million/year)
Winnipeg Jets: C Olli Jokinen ($4.500 million/year), W Devin Setoguchi ($3.000 million)

   Well, there's not much real 'replacement' of Nash's theoretical 40 put-ins. What's worse, if the trade deadline continues to have the historical trend of premium price for sub-premium player (just look at what NY gave up for Clowe last spring!), Sather will likely have to give up vital draft picks for the 2nd straight year, or at the very least a quality AHL prospect (Danny Kristo?). That's serious stuff to ponder, considering a depleted year of draft picks twice over for a couple of unsuccessful runs to the Cup Finals is usually a raw deal for an NHL club.

   Former NYR Assistant GM, Don Maloney, has had a history of trades with NYR GM Glen Sather. Prucha, Dawes, Korpikoski, Rozsival for Antropov, Morris, Sjistrom the past 5 years. Radim Vrbata is perhaps the top-quality goal-scorer among the names listed, and would, in this blog's opinion, be the best target to gun for in lieu of Nash. His contract is a modest fraction of Nash's $7.8 million, and if this team proves to be a playoff-calibre team minus a natural goal-scorer, I could very likely see a Vrbata trade hashed out. The problems are: 1) Phoenix is still legitimately fighting for a playoff spot in their division. 2) Vrbata is averaging a point per game this year, and if sustained could prove an even more expensive luxury tax on his rental services. 3) Vrbata could very likely be in legitimate negotiations to re-sign in Phoenix. 4) He does have a pesky No-Trade Clause he'd have to waive to be traded anywhere. As if anyone needs clarification: a Nash long-term injury would be a bad turn for this young NYR season, even if it can be relevantly relieved with LTIR cap credit. 

   That is why Vinny Prospal, current free agent and former Ranger, is being whispered about. While long in the tooth at 38 years old, Prospal could be signed to a mid-season very small 1-year contract (certainly under $1 million), without sacrificing of picks/prospects. He is certainly not an "ideal" mid-season depth signing, but then again, NYR's start to the 2013-14 season hasn't exactly been "ideal" itself. Do you remember NY signing Jason Arnott mid-season last spring only to have it fall through after he failed his physical? Deja vu.

   The team has looked competitive the past 4 contests, going 2-2. The opening road game blowouts, muddled in a 3-6 season-opening road trip, were very suggestive of a team adapting to a new coaching regime. Lundqvist's injury, as well as Nash/Callahan/Hagelin's respective absences, our heroes were doing so under shitty circumstances. Since Cam Talbot's NHL debut in Philadelphia, Detroit & Long Island, as well as Lundqvist's solid outing in a 2-0 defeat to Montreal (which was actually a very close and entertaining game prior to the 2nd goal), this signals a team adjusting its frequency and at the very least competing in games for 60 minutes, despite the chaotic atmosphere. This is a good sign. 

   4-7 is not terrible...considering the competitive gameplay the past 4 contests, nor the wave of injury that has sidelined serious components of this squad, nor the vast contrast of coaching from John Tortorella's bizarro approach. In 2011-12, after Marc Staal, a major component went down with a concussion, the team continued to compete and keep games close until his January return. The same must happen here. As HockeyRodent mentioned somewhere recently, the rash of injuries, if survived, can be key elements of an advantage come playoffs. Think about it; if Nash misses 4 months (including the Olympics), but returns in time for a playoff campaign... He could be the freshest legs in any contests. The same with Callaan or Hagelin playing 10-20 games fewer in the first quarter of the season, only to find themselves better-rested than their opponents should the team place 4th-or-better in the mediocre Metropolitan Division. 

   I am not pressing the panic-button on the team. But, as no news is bad news for concussed franchise winger Rick Nash, the panic button is on our radars. His long-term career could seriously be altered if his symptoms continue to loom. Mind you, we traded Anisimov+Dubinsky+Erixon+1st Round Draft Pick for Nash. His Rangers playoff debut was a lemon, and Sather is far from 'breaking even' on that deal in retrospect, particularly when Nash is watching from the press box. Callahan, despite attending 90%+ of regular season games the past 6 years, has a propensity for physicality (and subsequent injury) that will also need to be honestly addressed next off-season for his (theoretical) new contract. As Callahan approaches his 30th birthday, how long-term will his $5+ million/yr contract be?

   Brad Richards is playing the best hockey since his 1st season in NY back in 2011. He is getting pucks to the net, he has adapted to playing wing almost effortlessly, and is one of NY's few brightspots wrapping up the 1st month of the regular season. However... Richards' resurgence does provoke some interesting questions.

   1) We know that the new 2013 Contract Bargaining Agreement, which has since been implemented after Richards' 2011 massive contract-signing, will levy a hefty penalty on Richards should he retire early. Since his contract is frontloaded (he makes tens of millions his first years, only $1 million/year his final 3 years), should he retire early, NY would be vulnerable to an early-retirement "recapture" salary cap penalty down the road, which could be vital. So is Richards' successful season good or bad?

   Well... he probably will not be traded. Teams will not like his contract nor his early-retirement penalty risk, atop of his No-Movement-Clause. NY is almost certain to amnesty-buyout his contract next summer, no matter how well Richards performs, simply for the economic reasons. Such is nearly the same boat for Chicago Blackhawks' sniper Marian Hossa. If he cannot be traded, and is destined to be amnestied, it's only an upside for NYR, as winning the Stanley Cup in 2014 would automatically grant management immunity in a 5-year radius. Richards probably is aware he could be amnestied next summer, and could then, in turn, be playing for his next NHL contract next summer. NY can only hope to reap this year's fruits of Richards' labor before likely ejecting him from the franchise.

   Another bright spot: Cam Talbot. A month ago, the young man had Lundqvist, Biron & Hedberg above him in the goalie depth chart, with almost no conceivable way of playing 3 games in October. Well, an injury, a surprise retirement & tryout-release later, Talbot unexpectedly played his first 3 NHL games, going 2-1 with impressive statistics & consistency. His modest salary of $567,500/year is most welcomed to the cap-crunched NYR, and he is the first rookie NHL goalie I can recall to win his first 2 road games when trailing after two-periods. He is making a strong case to become the team's backup netminder, as his contract runs until July 2015. Wham, bam, thank you, Cam.

   If NY is to seriously vie for Cup Contention as Spring approaches, we must remind ourselves of 1 thing: Henrik Lundqvist. If The King is to win 16 playoff games, on top on his Olympic duties in February, he will need to sit out roughly 20 games. His best season, 2011-12, he played only 62 games as Biron was given 20 games... and mind you, that was with no Olympics. Lundqvist is no longer in his twenties, and victim of early-season injury, NY must not rely on Hank for 95% of the icetime between now and April. Not if the team is geared to win.

   The problem is, of course, the team must first qualify for the post season if it is to win it all. It's not exactly correct to conservatively bench Hank for rest when the playoff battle is neck-and-neck the final 15 regular season games. Even under optimal turnaround circumstances, Lundqvist can simply not play 70 of the final 80 games this year and be expected to carry his team to a Cup. History has shown goalies with more rest than the (elite) iron men have won it all... or, arguably, teams that spend their salary cap on the skaters in front as opposed to especially the goalie... but that's a debate best saved closer to Lundqvist's impending Unrestricted Free Agency.

   I found myself scratching my head with the new defensive pairs, especially since the top 5 defensemen were still on the Rangers for their 2012 Playoff Run (McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Stralman, Del Zotto). But, not surprisingly, that is the defensive scheme Vignault has reverted back to this past stretch of competitive games. Girardi with 0 points thusfar may be just the lull Sather is looking for to re-sign Girardi to a less-costly contract extension. McDonagh-Girardi, so often overworked by the Tortorella Administration, finds itself getting less abusive icetime per game, as AV has shared the 3 defensive pairs' icetime much more fairly than we have seen. As I said earlier, fresher legs is a good thing... assuming the playoffs are indeed on NYR's menu.

   With most of the salaries coming off the books next summer, in addition to the universally-expected rise in the salary cap... NY finds itself in a rare opportunity to systematically evaluate its players for future gigs on Broadway. Indeed, most of the players on ice at any given time for New York are selfishly (but naturally) fighting for their future in the NHL. Future wages, future contract length, future marketability. This is a wonderful subliminal reality to have in the team's mind overall, if it is to remain competitive for 60-minute stretches despite the injuries, staunch coaching change & other challenging factors. Here is a look at the current team's contract situation going into next summer:

Hagelin (2.250) - Stepan (3.075) - Nash (7.800)
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx - xxxxxxxxxxxxx - xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx - xxxxxxxxxxxxx - Miller (1.245)
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx - xxxxxxxxxxxxx - Dorsett (1.633)

McDonagh (4.700) - xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Staal (3.975) --------- xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx - xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx - Talbot (0.567)

RFA (with qualifying offers):
C --- Brassard ---- (3.700) [arbitration]
LD - Del Zotto ---- (2.900) [arbitration]
W -- Zuccarello -- (1.150) [arbitration]
D --- Falk ---------- (1.024) [arbitration]
W -- Kreider ------ (0.851) [no arbitration]
W -- Kristo -------- (0.827) [no arbitration]
D -- J. Moore ---- (0.851) [no arbitration]
W -- Mashinter -- (0.666) [arbitration]

UFA (outgoing yearly cap hit)
G ---- Lundqvist -- (6.875)
C/W - Richards --- (6.667) 
RW -- Callahan -- (4.275)
RD -- Girardi ------ (3.325)
C/W - Boyle ------- (1.700)
RD -- Stralman --- (1.700)
W --- Pouliot ------ (1.300)
C/W - Powe ------- (1.067)
C --- D. Moore ---- (1.000)
W --- Asham ------- (1.000)
C/W - Haley ------- (0.600)