Everyone catch their breath yet?
I slept on it, and I’m still not sure if I have.
What a crazy day for the New York Rangers — certainly the craziest since I’ve been around. In some ways, the least surprising news was Chris Kreider signing a 7-year, $45.5 million extension.
Monday began with the stunning announcement of a car crash involving Igor Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich, which sent shockwaves through the locker room. And it was capped by the Brady Skjei trade, which I knew the Rangers would explore, but wasn’t convinced they’d be able to make work.
In between, Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev were thrust into suddenly crucial roles, with Lundqvist offering some of his most candid comments yet about the uncertainty of his future in New York.
Got all that?
Let’s dive in.
Striking the right balance
The rebuild isn’t over, but it’s evolving.
The first indication came when the Rangers inked Artemi Panarin this offseason, and the Kreider signing was another step in that process. They’re both in their late-20s, so it’s not like these are strictly win-now moves. Those guys have some good years left beyond this season.
But with Panarin, Kreider and Mika Zibanejad in their primes, and a young core that's shown growth throughout the season, the Rangers are convincing everyone — management included — that the time has come to step out of rebuild-mode and keep the tools to succeed in place.
If the Rangers hadn’t gone 10-3 since the all-star break and pushed their way back into playoff contention, would team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton still have decided to lock Kreider up for seven years? It’s hard to say. But if the team was struggling and the feeling was they were still a few years away from contention, I believe they would have traded him for the assets.
Clearly, they feel their window is just opening — and Kreider is a big part of their plans.
At the same time, the Skjei trade was a move made with the future in mind. It had two obvious benefits — the addition of a first-round pick in a deep 2020 draft and the freeing up of cap space.
As Davidson pointed out, the Rangers now have 19 picks in the next two drafts. And the cap space will be especially important next season, when things were looking tight due to the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout hit and the final contract years for veterans Lundqvist, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith.
The Rangers have a valuable quartet of young restricted free agents — Georgiev, Tony DeAngelo, Ryan Strome and Brendan Lemieux — along with a key unrestricted free agent in Jesper Fast. They may not keep them all, but the Skjei trade provides options. If they want to, they can probably fit at least four of the five, with what should be a minimum of $15 million in cap space going into next season. (I’ll dive deeper into that later this week.)
“Obviously, flexibility is important as we go forward,” Gorton said. “And we have a number of guys that are on the last year of their deals that we have to look at. It all goes into it. We look at a little bit of everything when we make these decisions. It’s not based on just cap, but it’s a part of it.”
It seemed more likely the Rangers would eventually have to part with DeAngelo or Strome, both of whom you could argue have been more valuable than Skjei this season. The length and cost of Skjei’s contract — four more years after this at an average annual value of $5.25 million — along with the inconsistencies in his game, made him a player who would be harder to move. But they made it happen without eating any salary — and while netting a desirable pick.
All in all, it feels like the right balance.
Kreider would have been an extremely difficult player to replace in the present, so they kept him.
On the other hand, the organization is deep with left-handed defensemen, which made Skjei a prime candidate for a move aimed at the future.
“We want our club to keep winning,” Davidson said. “We want them to go through the experience of a chase down the stretch for the playoffs. That's very important to young people, in particular – and the veteran players, too. If we get there, fantastic. If we don't, it will be a good experience and we'll just keep moving along, as we're trying to build this into something. There's always steps forward; there’s always steps backwards when you get into this type of build, and I say this through experience with the two clubs I was with previously in St. Louis and Columbus. You have to keep your eye on what the big picture is. We have to make decisions with that mind.”
Dissecting the Chris Kreider deal
Since the summer, the assumption was that Kreider would be seeking a seven-year, $49 million deal (with an average annual value of $7 million) if he hit the open market.
Last month, I pondered whether he would accept a six-year, $42 million deal if the Rangers offered it. My thought was that the Rangers would be reluctant to go the full seven years, and if Kreider wanted to stay (which it was pretty clear he did), maybe he would take a year less as long as it still hit the $7 million per season mark.
As it turned out, the years were more important to Kreider than the AAV. He was willing to take a slightly smaller salary — $6.5 million per year — if the Rangers were willing to go to seven years.
That compromise from each side made this deal possible.
Essentially, Kreider is getting a raise of $1.875 million per year to stay. (His current salary is $4.625 million.) He definitely would have gotten more had he tested free agency this summer.
That’s helpful for the Rangers’ salary cap situation, particularly for next season, and they believe adding the extra year won’t come back to bite them. As Gorton pointed out Monday, they feel Kreider is still getting better. He’s on pace to go well past his previous career-high of 53 points, his intense focus sets the tone for younger players and the Rangers value the budding chemistry between Kreider, Zibanejad and Buchnevich.
There was also the question of how they would replace him if they traded him. He's clearly the second-best winger on the team behind Panarin. Buchnevich is signed for one more year, but Fast is a pending UFA who profiles best as a bottom-six forward anyway.
They would have had to force players who aren't ready into top-six roles. Even if Kaapo Kakko makes a big jump next season, there still would have been a gaping hole.
And there's this: Kreider is perhaps the most physically-gifted athlete on the team and trains vigorously. I’ve heard stories of him playing well over 20 minutes on a given night and then pounding out endless pull-ups in the weight room.
That’s no guarantee he’ll avoid injury, but the Rangers feel he can still be effective in his early-and-mid 30s. This contract will expire after his age-35 season.
“Today in our league, it’s not just showing up in training camp and training all winter,” Davidson said. “You try to play wherever you are. It's about 11 and a half months’ worth of (training) per season. And Chris is very good at that. That’s part of it, for sure.”
With Skjei gone, Gorton said the "short-term" plan is to have Smith replace him on defense.
Smith has played most of the season at forward, but he's spent the majority of his career as a defenseman and has appeared in a handful of games there lately.
"I think Smitty has played pretty well on 'D' when we’ve put him there," Gorton said.
What the pairings will look like will be interesting.
The Rangers have been using the all-rookie pair of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren as their starters lately, which leads me to believe they'd like to keep them together. The same goes for DeAngelo and Marc Staal, who have played their best when together the last two seasons.
The least disruptive move would be to put Smith in Skjei's spot next to Jacob Trouba. Is that the ideal combo for the player who is supposed to be your No. 1 defenseman? Perhaps not, but I think it's most likely — at least for now.
Eventually, the Rangers will consider recalling Libor Hájek or Yegor Rykov from AHL Hartford. But they're in no rush.
Why? Because teams are limited to four regular AHL moves after the deadline. The Rangers already used two of them by adding Brett Howden and Julien Gauthier to the Hartford roster on Monday. That doesn't mean they're being sent down, but it leaves the option open. (There is also an emergency recall option the Rangers can use in the event of an "incapacitating injury or illness or by league suspension.")
The final two AHL moves will be calculated. The Skjei trade left the Rangers with a 22-man roster, so they have an open spot. It stands to reason it will eventually be filled by a defenseman, but they're going to give Smith the first crack at it.
Maybe they eventually decide to take a look at 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov, who I know many of you are inching to see. But don't count on it anytime soon.
One of the reasons is because the Rangers don't have an obvious role for a forward at the moment. We don't know if Buchnevich is going to miss any time, and while Kreider missed Monday's practice due to illness, the fact that the Rangers hadn't called anyone up as of early Tuesday afternoon indicates at least one will be ready to play for Tuesday's 7 p.m. against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
The top nine has been settled for a couple weeks with Kreider, Zibanejad and Buchnevich on one line, Panarin, Strome and Fast on another, and Kakko, Filip Chytil and Phil Di Giuseppe on the third. Lemieux, Howden and Gauthier have filled out the fourth, with Greg McKegg available as an extra forward.
Fast was rumored as a potential trade candidate, but the Rangers opted to keep him around.
"A player like him is pretty well valued in the league," Gorton said." We thought about a little bit of everything with Jesper. But at the end of the day, keeping him was something we felt was important for our organization."