Like the miserly old scrooge from “A Christmas Carol”, New York Rangers’ General Manager Jeff Gorton must squeeze every last penny out of the team’s salary cap allowance with the Rangers in win now mode and having a number of key free agent decisions to come. Let’s take a deep dive into the numbers to see if we can’t figure out the dollars and make sense of how best to manage the Rangers roster. That is, if the team wants to maximize their chances of winning a Stanley Cup before a certain future Hall of Fame netminder becomes a distant memory of playoffs past.
We might as well begin with the current 2016/17 season. A quick trip over to the Rangers’ page at CapFriendly.com shows that they have approximately $2.2M in cap space at the moment which prorated means they can add just over $10M in contracted salary at the trade deadline. Without getting into too much detail that not many care about, salary in the NHL is calculated daily, so halfway through the season, for example, you can add a contract worth twice your current available cap space, as that player is only owed half their remaining contract. The trade deadline is over three quarters of the way through the season, so the amount you can add is just over four times your available space.
With a $10M budget, Gorton has plenty of maneuverability come March 1st. We’ve covered some of the available trade options such as Chris Tanev , Sami Vatanen, and Kevin Shattenkirk recently. All that is really necessary to know is that the Rangers could add any one of them without sending any salary the other way and make it work under the current salary cap. In fact, if Gorton decided to go nuts and acquire two of those three defenders at the trade deadline without shedding a dollar from the cap in return by say, shipping out every 1st-round draft pick the Rangers own for the next decade, he could do so and still fit under the salary cap. There aren’t too many reasonable scenarios for the Rangers to run into cap trouble for the rest of this season.
The Ghost of Salary Cap Present seems well satiated.
What gets complicated is next year and beyond, when the specter of managing the Rangers future resources are impacted by a few factors. Among them are whether and how much the NHL Salary Cap will increase each year, expiration and possible re-signing of current players under contract, future years of any players acquired via trade or free agency, potential player buyouts and the player’s salary lost in the Las Vegas expansion draft. After I dissect each of these, I’ll run some numbers based on those estimations to get a clearer cap picture that will inform what they can do at this year’s trade deadline that might include future salary implications.
Estimating the Future Salary Cap
There is the unknown when it comes to what the NHL Salary Cap will be in years to come. There is also the question of “will they” or “won’t they” as to whether the NHLPA will elect to enact the 5% escalator option to artificially increase the salary cap as per the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) rules (spoiler alert: they always have and likely always will despite NHLPA moans over escrow). What we can do is look at what the Salary Cap has done over the past handful of years. For the 2013/14 season the cap was $64.3M and then in consecutive years it went up to $69M, then $71.4M and finally $73M this season. The cap has had an average increase of $2.175M per season since the first season after the artificial cap limit set with the latest CBA negotiation. So we can reasonably assume a rounded down $2M increase per season, giving us a $75M salary cap for the 2017/18 season and $77M for the 2018/19 season. It’s not perfect, since anything can happen, but it’s what we can reasonably expect at this point. It is also what the NHL said they expect for next year back in December.
Player Lost to Las Vegas in the Expansion Draft
I’m not going to spend too much time on this because it is unlikely to significantly affect the Rangers’ available cap space. The pipe dream that Dan Girardi will agree to waive his No Movement Clause (NMC) and that Vegas will then help the Rangers out by plucking the remaining three years of his $5.5M AAV contract will not come to fruition. He may agree to waive so the Rangers can protect another defender, but Vegas will not spend their claim on him. As we’ve covered, one of Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast or Antti Raanta are among the most likely to be drafted. Once you factor in the cost of replacing that player, it will likely be break even or close enough in regards to the Rangers cap situation.
Potential Player Buyout Cost
There is only one somewhat likely buyout candidate and that is veteran Rangers defender Dan Girardi. There are a number of benefits to purchasing the remaining years of Girardi’s contract. In addition to the cap relief and moving on for good from the Ryan McDonagh and Girardi top pair, there may be Expansion Draft considerations if the Rangers acquire another defender prior to the draft that they want to protect. They have to protect Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh, and with his NMC, Girardi would also have to be protected, unless the Rangers buy him out first. The cost of that will be $2.6M in 2017/18 and $3.6M in 2018/19 and 2019/20, along with $1.1M for the three years after. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it likely will become necessary.
Expiring Player Contracts and Estimates of Retaining Them
The first massive savings will be in the form of Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs) who have contracts expiring. And by massive, I mean the $500K the Rangers will save next season when they no longer have to bury Tanner Glass’ contract in the minors. That’s it for next season, folks. Every other expiring contract in the 2017/18 season is for these Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) along with their current cap hit:
Mika Zibanejad – $2.625M
Brandon Pirri – $1.1M
Jesper Fast – $950K
Matt Puempel – $900K
Oscar Lindberg – $650K
Adam Clendening – $600K
I’m going to guess that the Rangers become the second team in two years to decline qualifying Pirri. They won’t want him back if he accepts his $1.1M qualifying offer, though he may be worthwhile to re-sign at or near the NHL minimum salary, set at $650K for next year, in order to let him fight again for a roster spot. Clendening and Puempel likewise won’t see much of a raise if they are brought back. Those who do stand to make more next season are Fast, Lindberg and of course Zibanejad. I have Fast penciled in at around $2M per season on a three to four year deal similar to the 6-year deal Nashville Predator depth forward Calle Jarnkrok received, assuming he doesn’t get claimed in the expansion draft. Lindberg has struggled much of this season, although he has come on lately. I’m guessing here that he’ll get about $1M per on a one or two-year deal.
The real question is what does Zibanejad get? To answer that, you have to take into account how many UFA years he is “selling” along with his production and playing style then compare that to other similar players who have signed new contracts in recent years. Derick Brassard, Nazem Kadri and Jaden Schwartz are similar players that help us determine fair market value for a new deal. They’ve all had similar production, signed their first long term RFA contracts at similar ages and had a similar number of UFA years bought. Using those comparables, on a four to five-year deal, Zibanejad should get around $5M per season.
After next season, things get more difficult for the Rangers who have to account for J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei who will all be RFAs. There will also be some Salary Cap relief from expiring contracts such as Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Kevin Klein, Nick Holden and Antti Raanta. Miller and Hayes likely get deals similar to Chris Kreiders’ 4 year, $4.625M AAV deals, while Vesey and Skjei get two year deals in the $2.7M range of Miller and Hayes’ current contracts. Their play next year may change all of these numbers, but for now, that is the best we can do.
Potential Trade Targets and Their Future Cap Hits
There are also any future contract years to consider for any trade targets at this year’s deadline, or in Shattenkirk’s case, a new contract that would make trading for him worth while. Using the targets I mentioned above, Vatanen is set to earn $4.875M per season through 2019/20, Tanev has $4.45M AAV until 2019/20 and Shattenkirk, who’s deal expires, is likely looking for a multi year deal in the $7M AAV range, however, he would have the benefit of not needing expansion draft protection assuming the Rangers trusted him to re-sign with them sometime after the draft but prior to becoming a UFA on July 1st.
Let’s Crunch the Numbers
As I mentioned earlier, the Rangers don’t have any limitations under the Salary Cap as far as likely targets for this year’s trade deadline. What does matter is next year and beyond. If we take my $75M cap ceiling for next year, the Rangers currently have 17 roster players under contract for next season at a cap total of around $63M. That would leave $12M for 6 spots assuming a 23 man roster, down to $7M for 5 roster spots once we account for Zibanejad’s new deal coming in at $5M. That likely precludes Shattenkirk without shedding additional salary, and even a buyout of Girardi will only free up an additional $1.9M. The cost then to acquire Shattenkirk at the deadline with the plan of re-signing him to a long term deal is problematic. In addition to the assets to acquire him, which might include cost-controlled forwards and draft picks, it would also mean shedding even more salary to fill out the roster.
If available, someone like Vatanen would seem to be a better target. While nowhere near as offensively productive as Shattenkirk, the Rangers aren’t having any problems scoring anyway. An argument could be made that they need much more help in their own zone. The cost becomes a scoring winger, though that also means a likely wash in cap hit, which provides more flexibility for next season and beyond. Taking a look at the following roster for example, using my estimates, would account for a cap hit of $70.65M:
Kreider ($4.625M) – Zibanejad ($5M*) – Buchnevich ($0.925M)
Miller ($2.75M) – Hayes ($2.6M) – Grabner ($1.65M)
Vesey ($0.925M) – Stepan ($6.5M) – Zuccarello ($4.5M)
Nieves ($0.775M) – Lindberg ($1M*) – Fast ($2M*)
McDonagh ($4.7M) – Vatanen ($4.85M)
Skeji ($0.925M) – Klein ($2.9M)
Staal ($5.7M) – Holden ($1.65M)
Lundqvist ($8.5M) – Raanta ($1M)
Girardi $2.6M buyout
Nash $3M retained in trade with Anaheim for Vatanen
The above roster leaves the Rangers with $4.35M in available cap space for another spare defender. One of the players above won’t be with the Rangers due to the expansion draft, however, that player will likely be one of Raanta or Fast who should be replaceable at around the same cap hit. This roster has plenty of cap cushion.
The following year, we would be looking at an estimated $77M cap ceiling. That same roster with my estimates would have a cap charge of $69.9M, albeit with more holes to fill:
Kreider ($4.625M) – Zibanejad ($5M*) – Buchnevich ($0.925M)
Miller ($4.625M*) – Hayes ($4.625M*) – ?
Vesey ($2.7M*) – Stepan ($6.5M) – Zuccarello ($4.5M)
Nieves ($0.755M) – Lindberg ($1M*) – Fast ($2M*)
McDonagh ($4.7M) – Vatanen ($4.85M)
Skeji ($2.7M*) – ?
Staal ($5.7M) – ?
Lundqvist ($8.5M) – ?
Girardi $3.6M buyout
* Indicates player cap hit is estimated based on potential new contract.
I left guys like Lindberg, Puempel and Clendening in their spots because they would likely either be retained or replaced at a similar cap charge. The Rangers would need a top-9 forward to replace Grabner along with 2nd and 3rd pair defenders and a backup goaltender. They would have around $7M to fill those four spots. This is certainly possible although they will have to get some value out of young cost-controlled players or cheap UFA reclamation projects in order to fill some of those holes and remain as competitive as they are now. Gorton has proven this year that he could do just that, but whether it was a fluke or management skill remains to be seen.
Many things can change between now and the start of the 2018/19 season, but one thing is certain. If the Rangers want to be as competitive as they can be now and over the next two seasons, they’re going to have to carefully manage their resources. That may include buyouts, trades, deciding against qualifying some RFAs and staying away from UFAs that they may ordinarily want to keep or try to acquire. Gorton has shown some savvy in his first year behind the helm but it remains to be seen if he can bust the salary cap ghosts lurking around the corner of the next few seasons.