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It’s been a quiet off-season for the New York Rangers since they signed Kevin Shattenkirk on July 1st. Despite the recent re-signing of Mika Zibanejad to a five-year extension, there’s been relative radio silence from the team. That, however, is likely to change thanks to a second July 1st of sorts on August 15th when several college hockey players are slated to become unrestricted free agents. Among them: Will Butcher, Alex Kerfoot, and Dominic Toninato.
Butcher, 22, is undeniably the grand prize of the August 15th sweepstakes and for all the right reasons. The recipient of the Hobey Baker Award for the NCAA’s top player, the young defenseman was a key piece in the University of Denver’s NCAA Championship winning season. Originally a fifth-round selection in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, Butcher has been a productive defenseman at the NCAA level with 69 points in 82 games through his junior and senior years. It should come as no surprise if every team comes knocking at the strong skating defenseman’s door. He’s a cerebral player and his ability to skate is a major commodity in the current NHL climate.
If the Rangers were to sign Butcher it would be an absolute steal, but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll choose to sign with a team that has spent an offseason loading up on players of a similar type. With the additions of offensive defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Anthony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk and Vince Pedrie, the young defenseman would find himself a redundant piece. In addition, he’d also find himself competing for a spot on a left side that already has Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal and Alexei Bereglazov. Given the Blueshirts’ current depth, it’s highly unlikely Butcher signs with New York though there’s no harm in the Rangers extending an offer his way regardless.
Instead, the Rangers should be setting their sights on the two center options that will become available in Alex Kerfoot and Dominic Toninato. After losing Oscar Lindberg to Vegas via expansion and trading Derek Stepan to Arizona, the Blueshirts are without the center depth they boasted just a year ago. Now they have Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes likely stepping up into higher roles in the top six while the bottom two pivot positions remain questionable. The addition of David Desharnais might work to fill in a fourth line spot and some speculate that a Ranger prospect like Boo Nieves or Lias Andersson could also be in contention for the final opening, but there really is no definitive answer to the Rangers center issue.
Enter Alex Kerfoot. Originally a fifth-round selection by the New Jersey Devils in 2012, Kerfoot has spent the last four seasons at Harvard University. His time with the Crimson has been defined by productivity with point-per-game seasons in three out of his four years played. In his most recent season in which he served as team captain—replacing none other than former Crimson, Jimmy Vesey—he posted career highs in goals and points with 16 and 45 respectively. Despite his very strong production and skill set, however, Kerfoot doesn’t project to be more than a strong bottom-six player in the NHL. Nonetheless, the Rangers shouldn’t pass up on an opportunity to once again add a quality young player for free.
Unlike the situation they face with Butcher, the Rangers actually offer quite a bit in terms of being an appealing suitor for the Harvard forward. Specifically, the aforementioned center openings in the bottom-six. Kerfoot will likely be looking to get ice time immediately and the Rangers can offer just that and quite a bit of it. If he’s unsure of whether or not he’ll actually receive that time, he can look no further than the treatment of former college Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs) Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey who both saw immediate action after signing. In addition, going to New York means a reunion with former linemate Jimmy Vesey. The two were productive alongside each other in Harvard and slotting Kerfoot into the third line center spot would likely result in Vesey joining him on the wing. Given the Rangers usage of Kevin Hayes to lure Jimmy Vesey to New York, it’s likely they will, in turn, use the Harvard connection to try and win over yet another college UFA.
The lesser known center available is Dominic Toninato, a selection by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012. While he doesn’t boast Kerfoot’s productivity, Toninato produced a respectable 29 points in 42 games in the 2016-17 season in which he captained University of Minnesota-Duluth to the NCAA Finals in which they lost to Butcher’s Denver club. The most recent winner of the NCHC Best Defensive Forward Award, he’d likely be considered to fill in for the defensive responsibilities of lost in expansion Oscar Lindberg and injured Jesper Fast.
The Rangers don’t have NHL players close to Toninato with whom they can use to entice him, but Neal Pionk, who signed in May, was a teammate of his at Minnesota-Duluth, as was Hartford Wolf Pack signing Brendan Kotyk. Familiar faces and the potential to compete for a roster spot could work to sway Toninato just as it would Kerfoot.
History has shown that the Rangers can use August 15th to help back-fill their prospect cupboards and with a gaping hole at center and two viable candidates, both with some connections to the team, this off-season shouldn’t be any different.