The New York Rangers’ hallmark over the past eight or so seasons has been keeping player payouts just under the salary cap. This season is no exception, as the Rangers are currently sitting dangerously close to the cap limit.
Right now, New York has just $478,565 in cap room, according to Spotrac.com, which is just under the minimum for a single player’s NHL cap hit (the minimum is $575,000). With that low of cap space, the Rangers are hard pressed to make any moves that don’t include an almost even salary swap.
One of the big reasons the Rangers aren’t over the cap is the fact that some of their young talent haven’t had their big paydays yet. They are mostly on bridge deals or entry-level contracts.
That’s all about to change this summer.
Four key members of the Rangers are set to hit the free agent market come July. Keith Yandle, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller all have expiring contracts. Yandle is the lone unrestricted free agent of the group, while the rest will be restricted free agents.
Both Hayes and Miller are finishing up their first NHL contracts, so they had cap hits of less than $1 million this season. Kreider is wrapping up a bridge deal that brought his cap hit to $2.475 million. Yandle is ending a five-year deal with a cap hit of $2.625 in 2015-16. For the most part, those salaries don’t accurately reflect those players’ performances on the ice. All of them have earned pay raises this summer.
With all the expiring contracts the Rangers have, they will have over $17 million in cap space to work with at the end of the season. Over $4 million of that shed salary will come from defenseman Dan Boyle’s expiring contract. Boyle is expected to retire at the end of this season, so that money can go towards re-signing players.
It’s assumed around $3-5 million of that $17 million will go towards re-signing some of the Rangers’ other talent and prospects, like Viktor Stalberg, Dylan McIlrath, Jayson Megna and Ryan Bourque. We can also assume that most, if not all four of the Rangers’ core free agents will want average annual values (AAV) upwards of $4 million. With only $12-14 million in cap space remaining, that doesn’t leave enough money to comfortably re-sign all four of Yandle, Kreider, Hayes and Miller.
The reality for New York is that at least one of those players will have to be moved before free agency begins. If they don’t shed a player and cap space, they could lose multiple of those players on the free agency market.
The question becomes not if you have to move a player at some point, but which one?
The obvious choice would be Yandle, and with Ryan McDonagh back in the lineup after recovering from a concussion, it would make sense to try and get some assets back for him at the trade deadline if he will just leave on the UFA market. However, this may not be the best move for the Rangers. Perhaps they should be extending him instead of trading him.
Yandle has been a bright spot on an otherwise dismal blue line this season. He’s looked very sharp and agile on the ice and makes a nice first or second-pairing defenseman. Moving him would probably re-open the hole that he filled when the Rangers acquired him in 2015. Plus, with Boyle likely retiring after this season, that leaves two gaping holes on the blue line, one of which will quickly be filled by McIlrath. The defense corps has looked lackluster even with a full lineup, so imagine what it woud look like with a big void on the top two pairings.
Prospects like Brady Skjei are a year or two away from being NHL-ready, and the best defensemen hitting the free agent market this offseason are Brian Campbell, Alex Goligoski and Dan Hamhuis. Normally, moving Yandle might be opportune, but in their case, giving him a three or four-year contract will shore up the blue line and at least hold the defensive corps intact until Dan Girardi’s contract is up.
Miller has been outstanding this season as well. He’s likely to double his point total from last season. The 22-year-old is just wrapping up an entry level deal, and with his ceiling so high, Rangers fans might riot if the team fails to give him a new deal. He might not get a big payday, but a bridge deal that will lead into a large payday in three or four years. Letting Miller go is not an option for general manager Jeff Gorton.
That leaves Hayes and Kreider. The two play on opposite wings, and were teammates in college with the Boston College Eagles. They were both highly-touted prospects, and have mostly lived up to expectations. This season, however, neither have more than 30 points through more than 50 games. They are both on pace to finish at or below their point total from last season. At this stage in their careers, one would normally want to see at least marginal growth in their production levels.
If the team continues down the road that they are on now, one of Hayes or Kreider will not be with the team in 2016-17. Given their similar stats, ages and playing styles, the decision to move one or the other could really be decided by a coin flip.
The trade that eventually happens will be determined by another team’s need. If a team is looking for a right winger, and has the assets to move, then Hayes will get traded. If someone comes calling in search of a left winger, then Kreider will be the one moved. There are plenty of teams out there with needs at either position. All of this won’t likely happen until the draft, but if a team has a good offer, there’s no reason this kind of move couldn’t happen at the trade deadline.
Last year’s salary cap logjam led to Carl Hagelin being moved to the Anaheim Ducks at the draft. This year, Rangers fans will have to wave goodbye to another fan favorite, whether it’s Kreider or Hayes. It might not be easy, but if the team wants to maintain sound financials, it needs to be done.
The salary cap giveth and the salary cap taketh away.