Chris Kreider is going to match up against former teammate Carl Hagelin on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh in a clash of speedsters. While Hagelin focuses on penalty killing and the defensive side of the game, Kreider’s talents lie on the power play and offensive side of the game.
Still, there is a striking similarity between the two forwards. Hagelin was jettisoned to the Anaheim Ducks last offseason as a restricted free agent casualty to the salary cap, and Kreider is the prime candidate to be the next casualty in New York.
Kreider is one of four major upcoming restricted free agents this offseason. Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Dylan McIlrath join the Boston College product in expecting pay raises. Of the quartet, only Dylan McIlrath has a RFA year remaining following next season, so the Rangers will have to shell out three new, much larger contracts to keep these valuable players in the organization.
The question with Carl Hagelin was never if he was valuable, but instead if he would be affordable. New York determined he would make too much on the open market and traded him away. This year’s trio of RFAs find themselves in similar positions. Unless the Rangers move Dan Girardi or Marc Staal, there is a good chance New York will be forced to trade one of the three to make room for the extensions for the other two.
J.T. Miller is having a career year coming off of an outstanding performance in the Eastern Conference Final, even recently scoring eight goals in eight games. Kevin Hayes has had his ups and downs this season, but appears entrenched as a member of the Rangers future, especially given that he is an option at both the wing and center.
Chris Kreider’s future is less certain due to the forward’s struggles this season.
This was supposed to be the season Kreider took the next big step. Head Coach Alain Vigneault was recently asked about Kreider’s progression, and spoke to the idea of Kreider needing to solidify himself as one of the main pieces in the New York Rangers puzzle.
“I look at Chris Kreider and I believe he can be an elite player in this league,” head coach Alain Vigneault said in September. “He’s got everything to become a dominant power forward in this league. He’s got almost two full years under his belt, except for a couple games in my first year. He’s been improving. He’s been taking strides. It’s his time to shine now. It’s his time to become one of the go-to guys on our team.”
The last sentence of Vigneault’s quote is key, as the time must be now for Kreider rather than later. While players are often afforded the luxury of years to develop in the NHL, the Rangers’ salary cap situation will not allow for any more stutters in Kreider’s progression. His possession numbers have remained at his usual pace, which is fine considering the team has regressed tremendously in the possession department.
Where Kreider must improve is on the scoreboard. Kreider’s 0.51 points per game represents a drop from previous seasons of 0.58 and 0.56 in a season when the Rangers had the shakiest top six of the three years. With the Rangers relying on Kreider the most now, the team has received the least production in response.
With two months left in the regular season, Chris Kreider has a lot left to prove to Jeff Gorton and company if he wants to remain a Ranger. Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller appear due for extensions, and Kreider can force his way into an extension if he shows the progression the coaching staff and management expected of him this season.
Last season Kreider scored 18 of his 46 points in the last 30 games of the season, surging into the postseason on a positive note. He would be wise to replicate that performance, as if Kreider is unable to progress and solidify his spot in the top six in New York, he may find himself as an “expendable” piece due to the salary cap issues the Rangers still face.
Salary Cap info via General Fanager. Stats from Hockey-Reference.com