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Sunday, July 6, 2014

NY Rangers Salary Set-Up: The Miller Effect, Joe Thornton?, Any Room for Another UFA?

   After securing veteran right-handed defenseman, and historical San Jose power play quarterback Dan Boyle, to a very reasonable 2-year $9 million contract, the NY Rangers now appear to be revealing their new roster shape and design slated for next October. Dominic Moore was re-signed to a 2-year $3 million dollar deal, another bang-for-your-buck free agency signing. I'm not terribly hot on Tanner Glass, but hey, he's a cheaper replacement for 4th line wing than Derek Dorsett, so lest we complain too much...

   NY now has 4 relevant Restricted Free Agents remaining to be signed... 3 of which have filed for salary arbitration; Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, and Derrick Brassard. All 3 of which, by the way, are coming off breakout seasons, and will receive considerably bigger contracts than any of them would have received last summer. The 4th RFA, whom does not have recourse of salary arbitration, is left-handed young defenseman John Moore, whom also earned his pay last season.

   There are rumblings of a Joe Thornton trade (involving Marc Staal, Jesper Fast, and picks/prospects) in the mix, but most fans know better than to take an internet trade rumor at face value. It would make sense, in theory, for NY to acquire one more center this summer, as the center position is the least 'deep' position New York currently retains on its roster. If not Thornton, one would imagine Glen Sather would at least be probing the agents of unrestricted free agents Mike Ribiero, Steve Ott, and Derek Roy. If only for tire-kicking posture and nothing else.

   However, since 2005, the NHL and its business transactions (or there lack of) are governed by a hard salary cap... which was recently announced to be $69 million for the 2014-15 season. And that's the rub.

   How much money does Sather have to retain Kreider, J. Moore, Zucc, and Brassard? And how much money will be left for one last free agent pickup after that foursome is finagled? Hmmm... and that's the rub.

   Well... in the interest of an example... let's say Glen Sather signs the 4 RFA's to 1-year deals. Ideologically a 1-year deal for each of these players would be a lower cap hit than 2-years, which would be a lower cap hit than 3-years, and so forth. I understand 1-year deals for Zuccarello and Brassard would have perhaps a costly consequence next summer, as both would be unrestricted free agents July 1, 2015, and perhaps would cost even more to retain them past that point. I understand there is merit to giving J. Moore a 2-year bridge deal, as what was done for Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin last summer. I understand giving Kreider a 5 or 6 year deal could be a wise investment for the future, as what was done with Ryan McDonagh last summer.

   I understand all of this; and I would be shocked if indeed all 4 RFA's were given 1 year contracts this summer. I'm not advocating it, I'm not defending it... I'm hypothetically illustrating it to see how much Sather could jam into the 2014-15 roster, regardless of its (negative) effect come 2016, 2017 and 2018. Let's get started shall we?

   Chris Kreider is an interesting case. He has been a valuable, relevant producer in the 3 postseasons he's played for Broadway. Despite never scoring a regular-season game winning goal in his career, Kreider is one of only 3 NHL players to have scored a game-winning-goal in each of the past 3 postseasons (along with Anze Kopitar and Alex Steen). It's difficult to speculate what an arbiter would award Kreider on a 1-year contract. I would suspect Kreider would sign a 2-year deal for roughly $2.5 million/year (which is more than what Hagelin got but less than Stepan). So... a 1-year deal, perhaps an even $2 million? I'll stick with that, though it's a generously low prediction.

   Mats Zuccarello would have to receive at least $4 million on a 1-year arbitration decision.

   As a comparable parallel, please recall Nik Zherdev's lone season in New York in 2008-2009. Nik scored 23-35-58 in 82 games, before being relegated to 3rd line and going scoreless in the 7-game heartbreak series to the Washington Capitals. The following August, Zherdev was awarded 1-year, $3.9 million in salary arbitration, which the New York Rangers declined. 

   Zuccarello, this past season, went 19-40-59 in 77 games. That's 1 more point than Zherdev in 5 less games. And of course, Zuccarello had a wonderful post-season, scoring 13 points in 25 games, as well as playing the most of any forward in a handful of Conference Final & Cup Final games.

   Thus... if Zherdev got $3.9, Zuccarello would have to get a little more, at the very least. $4 million, again perhaps a conservative estimate, will be my guess for this exercise.

   Derek Brassard is a center, and the historical trend has been a B+ center tends to rival the paycheck of most A- wingers. His qualifying offer was $3.7 million, which is certainly a reasonable figure to give him in a 1-year deal. Brassard averaged 0.56 points per game last season, which is precisely his average points-per-game over the course of his 7-year career. It wouldn't be absurd for Brassard to be awarded as much as Zuccarello in a 2014 salary arbitration, but we'll make it a tad less. Let's say 1-year $3.88 million.

   And finally, without the right of recourse of arbitration, we have John Moore. Moore can be offer sheeted, but otherwise is at the mercy of Glen Sather. Recall the contract holdouts of Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan in years past... I'm not sure Moore has the goods to balk in the face of a holdout, but one never knows. What's a reasonable offer for both sides? Let's say $1.333 million for 1-year, since a 2-year $1.5 million/year contract would seem to sound accurate.

   So to review, in this hypothetical, we've re-signed...

   Chris Kreider ---------- $2.000
   Mats Zuccarello ------ $4.000
   Derick Brassard ------ $3.880
   John Moore ----------- $1.333
   + ======================
                                        $11.213 million

   Let's check out the CapGeek roster with these hypothetical contracts signed...

   This leaves only one or two roster spots open, most significantly the 3rd line. In the image, J.T. Miller is assumed to be 3rd line wing. To his credit he had a stint in December where he played 3rd line center, though he can play wing as well. Miller on 3rd line is interchangeable to center or wing for all intents and purposes.

   $1.95 million remaining for a 3rd liner, and perhaps a Taxi Squad 13th/14th forward to carry on an NHL club.

   Do you recruit one of the remaining UFA centers for 3rd line... Derek Roy, Michael Handzus, Steve Ott, or the much-troubled Mike Ribeiro? Or do you entrust Miller as the 3rd line center months before training camp, only to sign Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfreddson, Lee Stempniak, Devin Setoguchi or Dustin Penner to a 1-year 3rd line winger deal?

   Decisions, decisions...

   Reportedly the NY Rangers management is highly-touting of American Hockey League prospect centerman Oscar Lindberg. He enters 2015 on the final year of his entry-level contract, with the highly-economical cap hit of $675,000/year. Does Glen Sather (willingly or by victim of the salary cap) have two rookie centers on the roster come opening night? Lindberg turns 23 in October, had an impressive rookie year in the AHL (18-26-44 in 75 games), and won the Swedish Elite League equivalent of the Conn Smythe in 2012-13. Does he report for a sophomore season for the Hartford Wolf Pack, or does management dare assume he will make the team out of September's training camp?

   With one remaining roster spot amongst the top-12 forward positions... the decision to sign a winger or a center depends on Miller and Lindberg. Could either have a breakout season in the NHL next year while adequately handling 16+ minutes per game for a full season+playoff? If they have value to an NHL franchise in the future, but perhaps not much as far as a 2015 NHL playoff run is concerned, is it not prudent to trade prospects for current-talent? 

   And if prospects, or Sather's confidence nor expectations in his prospects, is absent... what would the trade be?

   Who knows? Probably a trade to improve the depth at the center position. Probably a trade which sent away pick(s) and/or prospect(s) for asset(s) which could contribute to an NHL club immediately. Probably a trade not meant to free up salary room in 2018, but to perhaps create more future salary cap situations in exchange for veteran NHL talent with an affordable contract.

   The infamous Gomez/McDonagh trade occurred June 30th, 2009. The blockbuster Dubinsky/Anisimov/Nash trade occurred July 20th, 2012. The Lindros acquisition occurred all the way back on August 20th, 2001. Glen Sather has made ginormous trades at all points of summer. A swap of great impact, for better or worse, could happen anytime all summer. It COULD happen, I don't believe there's a point in the summer where the window closes for big-time NHL trades.

   Or, quite plausibly, there could be no more trading done by Glen Sather. A great deal depends on the expected quality and quantity of talent, desperate to break into the NHL. It's already quite a conservative leap to automatically assume Miller and Fast both crack the roster out of training camp. Where struggling to make the big leagues ends, the advantage of having cheap contracts in a salary cap era begins...

   Of course, as I disclaimed earlier, it would be shocking if NY gave its four RFAs 1-year deals. The longer the deals of these four, the greater the cap hit goes up, and the less wiggle room NY has in an already claustrophobic situation. 

   Simply put, if the kids are old enough to go out and play, Sather is awarding some youngsters a latch key. Or at least a key opportunity. If not, however, and Sather has sub-confidence in the farm, he would be remiss to not make a trade of some kind with somebody or someone. I may sound like Captain Obvious, but at least know that decision largely relies in Sather's confidence in his prospects. 

   And by the way, despite a lack of [quality] draft picks the past few seasons, there are many forward candidates seeking a dark horse roster spot come training camp time. 

   They include:

   Forward - Ryan Haggerty (NCAA)
   Forward - Danny Kristo (AHL)
   Forward - Anthony Duclair (QMJHL)
   Forward - Chris McCarthy (NCAA)
   Forward - Ryan Bourque (AHL)
   Defenseman - Troy Bodie (NCAA)
   Defenseman - Petr Zamorsky (Czech Republic)
   Defenseman - Troy Donnay (OHL)
   Defenseman - Calle Andersson (Sweden)

   Defenseman - Conor Allen (AHL)

   In closing, New York drew its success from having the weapon of young, speedy wingers... which compensated for the standard or sub-standard depth at the center position. I'm not crazy about Brassard as a 2nd center, or the heavy assumption of Miller's certainty at the vital spot of 3rd line center (or wing). But, to be fair, the 2013-14 Rangers were unlike any squad of forwards we've seen. Literally. There was never a NY Rangers team that played such evenly-spread out minutes since Average Time On-Ice (ATOI) became a tracked stat in the late 90's. Not a single Rangers forward averaged 19 minutes per game. That's just the method of madness that could give a team a fighting chance at contending without the gift of elite, or even "high-end"centermen.

   At this point, all we can do is watch.

   We'll see how salary arbitration goes down.

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