On Monday, the New York Rangers re-signed center Derek Stepan to a six-year, $39 million contract, avoiding an arbitration hearing that could have set the 25-year-old on the path to unrestricted free agency.
However, now that Stepan is locked in for the long-term, the salary cap questions are just getting started for the Rangers. They are lucky to have their primary core of players (Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Brassard, Dan Girardi, etc.) locked in for years to come. At the same time, they have some tough decisions to make when it comes to maintaining some of their depth forwards, and how to save face from a potential trade deadline blunder.
Here are all the players that become some type of free agent after next season:
Keith Yandle (UFA)
Dan Boyle (UFA)
Chris Kreider (RFA)
Dominic Moore (UFA)
Viktor Stalberg (UFA)
Kevin Hayes (RFA)
J.T. Miller (RFA)
Emerson Etem (RFA)
Antti Raanta (UFA)
Raphael Diaz (UFA)
Chris McCarthy (RFA)
Jayson Megna (RFA)
That’s a lot of key talent for the Blueshirts. General manager Jeff Gorton would love to keep everyone, but the salary cap likely won’t let them. The Rangers only have $300,500 in cap space for this season, and will have more than $14 million in contracts come off the books in the Summer of 2016, a good chunk of which comes from Boyle’s contract ($4.5 million AAV).
The team has to choose between maintaining their defense and maintaining their forward depth. If Hayes and Kreider keep developing like they have, they’ll both want big pay raises. There’s no way either of them get Stepan-type money, but the two of them combined could take up nearly half of the available cap space for 2015-16.
Other forwards like Etem and Miller could also want a significant pay raise, should they have stellar 2015-16 seasons. Moore could factor into this equation as well, but at 34 years old, he won’t likely see big money or big term.
On defense, Boyle won’t likely be back with the Rangers, or perhaps any team — he’s 39 years old. The question mark is Yandle. Essentially, their offseason plan comes down to his 2015-16 performance. If he’s good, they should pay him, and then try to figure out a way to keep Hayes, Kreider, Etem and/or Miller. If Yandle is inconsistent again, they can move him and focus all their attention on the forwards.
The 28-year-old was a mixed bag with the Rangers after he was traded from the Arizona Coyotes, where he anchored a fleeting defensive unit with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Yandle put up some decent numbers (11 points in 21 regular season games with the Rangers, and 11 points in 19 playoff games), but at times looked lost on the ice and on his skates, especially during clutch playoff situations.
The Rangers acquired Yandle to complement Marc Staal and create a second pairing that could essentially act as a replacement first pairing. They didn’t quite live up to that last season.
If Yandle, specifically, does this year, the Rangers might consider giving him a pay raise, but it would be at the cost of valuable money that could be used on the aforementioned young forwards. If Yandle doesn’t live up to expectations, he could be a valuable trade chip to send to a team that could use some defensive help for a potential playoff run.
The salary cap creates tough decisions for franchises, especially big-money teams like the Rangers. Gorton’s no stranger to the cap. He knows the game, and he’s going to play it. If he plays his cards right, it’s possible.