Rangers Roulette: A Closer Look at Vegas Expansion

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

Bill Foley’s $500 million NHL expansion project has taken its first steps toward legitimacy. The Vegas—no Las—Golden Knights debuted their franchise logo and identity during an NHL Network-broadcasted event on November 22nd. It didn’t exactly go off without a hitch given the embarrassing technical difficulty they suffered in failing to properly play their countdown video in a timely manner, but curious NHL and would-be Vegas fans alike finally got their first look at what the 2017 NHL season will bring. When the puck drops on opening night for the 2017-18 season, the NHL will be operating with its 31st franchise—the first major sports league to operate out of Las Vegas in history.

With the team’s primary logo, alternate logo, and wordmarks released, only two major announcements remain. On that docket are the yet-to-be-released team uniforms, of course, but even more important than those will be the results of the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft that will take place between June 18th and 20th, 2017 that will ultimately reveal the full expansion roster for the team’s inaugural season. Every one of Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee’s selections are set to be announced in unison on June 21st and the Rangers are one of a number of teams primed to pay a heavy price when that list is announced.

For anyone still unaware of how this whole thing will go down, Pat Iverson has a wonderful breakdown of the entire process here. There’s no need for me to rehash it in its entirety, but the four most important factors are as follows:

1. Every team has two options by which they can protect players they wish to keep. Option 1 is to select seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie. Option 2 is to select eight skaters total (forward or defenseman), and one goaltender.

2. Every team will lose one player to expansion.

3. Players with a No-Movement Clause (NMC) in their contract must be protected, regardless of whether a team would want to expose them or not. Teams can ask them to waive their NMC, but the player(s) must agree to waive it in order to be eligible for exposure. If they refuse, see the start of this bullet again.

4. First-and-second-year players are exempt from exposure and do not count against a team’s protection list.

For the Rangers, right off the hop, this means players like breakout defenseman Brady Skjei, as well as young forwards Pavel Buchnevich, and Jimmy Vesey will be safe. They don’t meet the games-played/experience threshold and thus do not require protection. Yay!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi all own full NMC’s and require mandatory protection. So, too, as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston first reported, does Rick Nash. Boo!

This leaves the Rangers staring down a significant question — who do they protect, and as a result whom do they risk losing? When push comes to shove, they will lose someone, and that player will be, by the NHL’s design and the Rangers’ own hand, someone of significance. Long gone are the expansion eras of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild where clubs gave up nothing of substance leaving those first-year teams destined for the bottom of the NHL standings. This Vegas team is expected to compete out of the gate, and the rules are meticulously crafted to ensure that. That may be great news for Vegas, but it’s bad news for the Rangers. Their incredible team depth is sure to make them a first-choice source for McPhee to begin building his club. Below is a short list of the most at-risk players I think the Rangers will ultimately gamble losing to Sin City’s tap.

G Antti Raanta, 27, $1.0M AAV

We already know that Lundqvist, Staal, Girardi, and Nash will need to be protected. This grouping means that right away backup goaltender Antti Raanta won’t be. The 27-year old Finn is currently 5-1 on the season with a .931 SV% and a 2.20 GAA. His two-year aggregate SV% is .923 and his GAA over that time is 2.24. He’s currently in the first year of a two-year contract worth just $1M per season. Like Cam Talbot before him, his workload with the Rangers has allowed future legend Henrik Lundqvist to reduce his games played in an attempt to stay sharp for the playoffs. Given how valuable a reliable backup is in the league, this is already a sizable risk for the Rangers, despite their organizational depth in net. Even if Vegas looks elsewhere, perhaps at someone like Red Wings veteran Jimmy Howard, for their starter selection, Raanta should still be at the top of their shortlist for backup. His combination of experience, acumen, performance, and contract value are impressive and would be hard to pass over.

F Michael Grabner, 29, $1.65M AAV

Hang on, hang on—I can’t possibly mean the Rangers leading goal scorer Michael Grabner, can I? The same Michael Grabner who is currently tied for second in the league with 12 goals behind only Sidney Crosby? Unfortunately, yes. Grabner is in the first year of a two-year deal worth just $1.65M per season that he signed with the Rangers this past summer. It’s far and away one of the best bargain contracts in recent NHL history given his early success, high shooting percentage and all. He’s been a revelation, and his presence has positively affected more than just the production of his line. It has also paid dividends on the dramatically improved penalty-kill. Through the first 23 games of the season, the Rangers’ 86.2 Penalty-Kill Percentage (PK%) is fifth in the league. That’s a near 180° turnaround from last season’s 78.2%, 27th place finish. Grabner isn’t the only reason for this, but he’s been one of the bigger ones for certain. No Rangers forward has spent more time on the ice short-handed this year than he has (42:13). So why risk losing such an important, productive player? Because keep in mind that the Rangers have a limited number of protection selections they can make, and there are arguably more important forwards here who can offer the team more value over a longer period of time than Grabner can. He’s done a bang-up job, but younger impact forwards like Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller mean more in the franchise’s bigger picture.

F Jesper Fast, 24, $950K AAV

In a lot of ways, Fast is the perfect bottom-six player for today’s NHL. While he’s not especially productive, he’s a penalty-killing stalwart, second only to Grabner in total short-handed TOI/G this season among forwards, is making less than a million dollars per season, and can be trusted in all situations, including late in games while defending a lead. He can even play up in the lineup in the event of injury and not prove to be a liability if the team isn’t relying on him for too long in that role. Oh, and his rights are still protected this summer as an RFA. It’s easy to say that the AHL is filled with players like him, but it isn’t. It’s filled with players who might be like him but aren’t guaranteed to give the Rangers the same trustworthy, tried-and-true level of play and effort game-to-game. Losing Fast to Vegas could open a door to someone like Boo Nieves, but Fast’s loss would be felt most on the penalty-kill where his success would not be easily reproduced. His foot speed isn’t something that can be taught, and only Nieves might match or rival it from the current crop of forwards in waiting.

F Brandon Pirri, 25, $1.1M AAV

I actually wrote about Pirri back on November 1st when ClearedForContact launched championing the Rangers for recognizing a worthwhile talent who could be had at an incredible bargain rate. Nothing has changed since then.

Most of his games came after the start of the 2013-14 season and among players who have played at least 40 games since then, Pirri ranks 11th in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes with 1.37. His closest peers during this span are Jamie Benn (12th at 1.36), Wayne Simmonds (13th at 1.34), and Max Pacioretty (11th at 1.41). More interestingly, Pirri’s scoring numbers are predominantly registered 5-on-5, not on the power play as one might expect. Still, a larger sample size is needed to completely trust that data. Over the same 2013-2016 stretch, only 15 of his 53 goals (28%) were scored on the man advantage. Compared to that same peer group Pirri really stands out as the untapped goal-scorer he is. 61% of Benn’s goals and 48% of Simmonds’ were scored on the power play. Only Pacioretty has a better even strength percentage, having scored just 23% of his totals on the man advantage over that time.

He’s tied for seventh in team scoring with ten points in 23 games despite playing the vast majority of his minutes on the Rangers’ fourth line, averaging just 12:44 TOI/G — the least among all regular forwards. Only Oscar Lindberg and Josh Jooris, both of whom have played in just nine games, averaged fewer minutes per game. Lindberg has one point—an assist—and Jooris has two points in that span. At just 25-years old, with his contractual status set to return him to RFA eligibility, Vegas should have considerable interest in his offensive talents given the low price they would come at.

The way I see it, the Rangers will ultimately end up protecting Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Henrik Lundqvist. It’s a wonderful list of forwards, a franchise goaltender, and a top-pairing defenseman, plus a couple of must-keep anchors. But it’s who is not listed that might tell the bigger story. Beyond just the four players above, Oscar Lindberg, Josh Jooris, Matt Puempel, and Adam Clendening, who are all RFAs after this season, as well as Kevin Klein and Nick Holden, both of whom have one year left on their contracts, will be eligible for Vegas to pick as well. The good news is they can only lose one of them. The bad news is they have to lose one of them.

Red or black? Odd or even? We don’t know. What we do know is that the roulette ball will clack loudly as the wheel comes to a precarious stop. Where it lands is anyone’s guess, but the selection McPhee makes will surely leave Rangers fans lamenting the days when then 31-year old Mathieu Schneider (who didn’t even stay with the inaugural Blue Jackets) was all they had to give up to the new team on the block. The Rangers pain will be Vegas’ gain.

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