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Off-Season Game Plan: New York Rangers

Scott Cullen
6/2/2011 1:16:34 AM
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The New York Rangers made the playoffs in 2011, but a quick first-round elimination means there is still plenty of work to do this summer.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Rangers roster that has talent, but may also need to cut some salary fat in order to make significant roster upgrades.

While the Rangers are known for spending money, they've also put together a quality core with a lot of homegrown talent. While Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are cornerstone pieces for the Blueshirts, the Rangers figure to have enough cap room to be bold when free agency begins.

There aren't a lot of marquee free agents available this summer, but Brad Richards is one and he could be the Rangers' primary target. How aggressive the Rangers can get beyond that may depend on how much money they are willing to pay for players not to play.

Wade Redden was demoted to the American Hockey League last season and it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which he returns to New York. If the Rangers want to have even more cap room, they could buy out forwards Chris Drury, Wojtek Wolski and Sean Avery, or some combination thereof.

The Rangers are fortunate enough that they have the resources to get out from under some of their less desirable contracts and, hopefully, spend their money more wisely this summer.

If that means targeting Richards, so be it, but if they can't get Richards, this summer should also be about getting Dubinsky and Callahan signed to long-term deals and other free agent acquisitions can augment the Blueshirts' current core, so long as it's not a repeat of the summer of 2007 when the Rangers grossly overspent on Scott Gomez and Chris Drury.

At least in Richards' case, he has a better track record as a point producer and a history with Rangers head coach John Tortorella, so it's more reasonable to expect him to produce at an elite level.

In years gone by, the Rangers have made big splashes in free agency, whether it was Redden, Gomez, Drury or Marian Gaborik and the results have been, to be kind, mixed, so while it would be nice to land a top player like Richards, the Rangers can't consider any free agent signing to be a saviour.

There is a good enough core building in Manhattan that the Rangers could be a playoff team with the right acquisitions this summer, yet they don't have the kind of offensive flair that assures a playoff berth without some savvy off-season moves.

GM/COACH
Glen Sather/John Tortorella

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Marian Gaborik 75.33 $7.5M
Derek Stepan 69.08 $875K
Mats Zuccarello 68.74 $1.75M
Wojtek Wolski 67.45 $3.8M
Erik Christensen 65.60 $925K
Brandon Prust 64.55 $800K
Sean Avery 62.75 $1.938M
Chris Drury 62.00 $7.05M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Ryan Callahan 79.02 RFA $2.3M
Vaclav Prospal 73.10 UFA $2.48M
Brandon Dubinsky 73.71 RFA $1.85M
Brian Boyle 69.84 RFA $525K
Artem Anisimov 69.78 RFA $822K
Ruslan Fedotenko 67.47 UFA $1.0M
Alexander Frolov 65.52 UFA $3.0M

A year after scoring 42 goals and a career-high 86 points for the Rangers in 2009-2010, Marian Gaborik delivered 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games last season, playing his fewest minutes per game since 2002-2003. As he slumped down the stretch, Gaborik was playing under 17 minutes a game, a far cry from the 21:15 he played in 2009-2010.

It was an undoubtedly frustrating season but, considering his contract and no-trade clause, the Rangers ought to hope they can find suitable linemates that will get him back to elite production.

Derek Stepan came straight from the University of Wisconsin into the Rangers' lineup and didn't miss a beat, ranking fifth among rookies with 45 points last season.

With his responsible two-way play and setup skills, Stepan may be able to move into a bigger role but he's not yet 21, so expectations should remain reasonable as he gets stronger and his game develops.

Tiny Norwegian Mats Zuccarello only played half the season with the Rangers, playing just 14:10 per game, but was effective enough, scoring 23 points as well as far-and-away leading the Rangers in five-on-five shot differential per 60 minutes, according to www.behindthenet.ca.

Maybe he's destined for a role as a specialist in offensive and power play situations, but Zuccarello has the skill (if not the size) necessary to play in the league.

One of the more confounding talents in the league, Wojtek Wolski scored a point-per-game after he was acquired by the Coyotes in the 2009-2010 season, only to open last season in the doghouse, playing three-to-four fewer minutes per game, before eventually getting traded to the Rangers.

Wolski didn't do much to salvage his season in New York and ended up with a career-low 35 points. He's good enough to produce so much more, but who can figure out how to bring out his best night-in and night-out? Under 26, Wolski could be a buyout candidate, as it would come at only one-third of the cost of his contract.

Erik Christensen has had some moments with the Rangers, but consistency eludes him as does, consequently, ice time. He's a skilled player, though it's debatable if he's skilled enough to handle a top-six forward role.

Given an opportunity to play meaningful minutes on Broadway, tough guy Brandon Prust hasn't disappointed, scoring a career-high 13 goals and 29 points last season while maintaining his combative nature with 18 fights, tied for fourth-most in the league.

Developing into a steady player capable of playing a regular shift should make Prust the patron saint of fighters who yearn for a more significant role.

Though Sean Avery can still get under an opponent's skin, he wasn't nearly effective as an all-around player last season, managing just three goals in 76 games.

Avery is an odd fit with the Blueshirts under John Tortorella because Tortorella won't put up with Avery's antics and a neutered Avery can go through stretches in which he appears disinterested.

It's a fine line, and Avery doesn't always know how to stay on the right side of that line, but he's at his best when he's getting in the face of his opponents, but doing it with some measure of control.

As he hits his mid-thirties, it's apparent that Chris Drury is starting to wear down. His 2009-2010 season was the least productive of his career, and he followed up with one goal and five points in 24 games last season, a year that was marred by a broken finger and knee surgery.

Drury's going into the final year of his grossly-overpriced contract, which includes a no-movement clause, so he could be a buyout candidate. Removing sentiment from consideration, that would be the only way to gain some cap relief on the more than $7-million in cap space (and $5-million in salary) that is owed in 2011-2012.

Ryan Callahan scored a career-high 23 goals and 48 points last season, but that doesn't do justice to how valuable he is to the Rangers. For one thing, those totals came in just 60 games, as Callahan missed time in the middle of the season with a broken hand, then missed the last couple games and the playoffs with a broken foot after blocking a Zdeno Chara slap shot.

Callahan led all forwards with 1.28 blocked shots per game and he's annually among the hits leaders so, even if there may be some recording issues at Madison Square Garden, it's fair to say that Callahan contributes in ways that don't necessarily show up on the scoreboard.

Playing hard in all zones for 20 minutes a night makes Callahan a valuable commodity and he's likely due a sizeable raise as a restricted free agent.

If Callahan is the heart of the Rangers' lineup, the soul would be Brandon Dubinsky, a 25-year-old winger who, like Callahan, has improved steadily and gives the Rangers a consistent effort.

Dubinsky scored a career-high 24 goals and 54 points, while leading Rangers forwards with 20:13 of ice time per game, last season. He can play centre (he was the Rangers' best faceoff man last season) and wing but, given his size and the premium placed on strong two-way centres, it makes sense to keep Dubinsky in the middle unless the Rangers happen to acquire an elite centre this summer.

Veterand forwards Vaclav Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko may be allowed to test the free agent waters, while Alexander Frolov has reportedly agreed to play in the KHL.

Even if the Rangers get long-term deals done for Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, there should be cap room available to try and go after a premier free agent forward. Certainly, Brad Richards would be the first choice (and has been rumoured for some time), but Brooks Laich, Ville Leino, Alex Tanguay or Simon Gagne may all warrant consideration if Richards can't be lured to Manhattan.

Additionally, the tragic loss of Derek Boogaard does leave the Rangers without a heavyweight enforcer, so if they are inclined to find a replacement, they can look to free agents like Eric Boulton, David Koci, Jay Rosehill or Cam Janssen, particularly if they want to ease the pugilistic expectations on Brandon Prust.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Daniel Girardi 70.33 $3.325M
Marc Staal 69.55 $3.975M
Ryan McDonagh 66.08 $1.3M
Michael Del Zotto 63.46 $1.088M
Wade Redden N/A $6.5M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '10-'11 Cap Hit
Bryan McCabe 68.15 UFA $5.75M
Michael Sauer 64.52 RFA $500K
Matt Gilroy 62.76 RFA $1.75M
Steve Eminger 60.57 UFA $1.125M

It figures that the Rangers, under the bright lights and big stars on Broadway, have a defence that is made up primarily of no-nonsense, reliable types.

Dan Girardi continues to improve and is one of the more dependable blueliners in the league, having missed two games in the last four seasons while playing at least 21 minutes per game, up to a career-high 24:35 last season.

Girardi scored a career-high 31 points last season, but his primary role is to handle matchups against the opposition's top line. Recording bias may be a contributing factor, but no defenceman had more combined hits and blocked shots than Girardi's 431 last season.

Marc Staal gets charged with the same task as Girardi, and while he's not the same kind of shot-blocker, Staal has developed into one of the game's better shutdown defencemen and ranked fourth in the league with 25:44 of ice time per game.

Staal and Jay Bouwmeester were the only defencemen (aside from Ryan Whitney and Mike Green, who missed substantial time with injuries) to have fewer than 30 points while playing more than 25 minutes per game.

After easing into the lineup in January, Ryan McDonagh played 20 minutes a night the rest of the way and was very effective in a defensive role, finishing with a plus-16 rating in 40 games. More of that would be just fine for the Blueshirts.

Michael Sauer partnered with McDonagh in the second half of the season and they formed a solid defensive pairing, basically giving the Rangers four shutdown-style defencemen, though perhaps a little light in terms of offensive puck-movers.

It's been rough transition for Matt Gilroy, who is a good enough skater to be an NHL defenceman, but he's not particularly aggressive and isn't so skilled that he is assured a spot in the lineup. Through his first two seasons, he hasn't seen a great deal of ice time.

Perhaps he would with another organization, but otherwise he may just be in the battle for the sixth or seventh spot on the Rangers' blueline.

Michael Del Zotto, obviously not impressing John Tortorella, was demoted to the AHL for a time in his second season, which could be seen as a bump in the road for his development. He's a good puck-mover and will use his body, but can make better decisions on the defensive end.

Dealing to get Tim Erixon from Calgary ought to improve the Rangers' defence going into next season. Erixon, who's father Jan played for New York in the 1980s, has enough experience in the Swedish Elite League that he should be expected to fit in the top six right out of the gate.

Depending on the Rangers' cap situation, they could use another veteran blueliner, especially one that might be able to help on the power play. Tomas Kaberle, whose value has likely decreased during the postseason, could be a possibility, or perhaps Anton Babchuk, whose big blast from the point might be just as helpful.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Cap Hit
Martin Biron 80.24 $875K
Henrik Lundqvist 78.71 $6.875M

One of the game's premier goaltenders, Henrik Lundqvist has back-to-back seasons with a save percentage over .920, making him one of three goaltenders (Ilya Bryzgalov and Tomas Vokoun are the others) in the league to accomplish that feat.

Lundqvist was supposed to get more rest when the Rangers brought in an experience backup, Martin Biron, and 68 games played was Lundqvist's fewest since his rookie season in 2005-2006, but a broken collarbone prevented Biron from playing after February 7th.

Biron is good enough to start for some teams in the league, so he's a high quality backup, especially when one considers that he's asked to handle maybe 20 starts behind Lundqvist.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Tim Erixon D Skelleftea (SEL) 5-19-24,-3, 48 GP
Chris Kreider C Boston College (HE) 11-13-24,even, 32 GP
Christian Thomas RW Oshawa (OHL) 54-45-99,+20, 66 GP
Evgeny Grachev LW Connecticut (AHL) 16-22-38,+21, 73 GP
Dylan McIlrath D Moose Jaw (WHL) 5-18-23,even, 62 GP
Carl Hagelin LW Michigan (CCHA) 18-31-49,+21, 44 GP
Ryan Bourque C Quebec (QMJHL) 26-33-59,+14, 49 GP
Jesper Fasth RW HV71 Jonkoping (SEL) 7-9-16,+6, 36 GP
Chad Johnson G Connecticut (AHL) 2.72 GAA, .901 SVPCT, 40 GP
Pavel Valentenko D Connecticut (AHL) 5-12-17,+21, 79 GP

A first-round pick of the Flames in 2009 that was traded to the Rangers hours before the signing deadline on June 1, Tim Erixon is a 20-year-old with three full years of experience in the Swedish Elite League, so he ought to be ready to challenge for a spot in New York right away.

Chris Kreider is a big forward and a fantastic skater, so he's very likely to have a future in the league; how significant he is as an NHL player will depend on how much he develops offensively.

There's no questioning the offensive development of right winger Christian Thomas, who has 95 goals in his last two seasons in the OHL. He's never going to be big, but his dad, Steve Thomas, wasn't tall either and he surpassed 25 goals eight times in his career.

A winger with good size, Evgeny Grachev hasn't developed as quickly offensively, but his second season in the AHL was solid as he led all Connecticut forwards with a plus-21. Depending on what kind of acquisitions/deletions the Rangers make this summer, Grachev could have a good opportunity to make the team next year.

The tenth overall pick in last summer's draft, Dylan McIlrath is a big, nasty defenceman, who hasn't shown much offensively, but has scrapped 32 times in the last two seasons. His toughness will pave his way to the Rangers' lineup, but he can continue to improve the other facets of his game.

Carl Hagelin was the leading scorer for National Finalist Michigan; he plays a mature two-way game and may be ready quickly for a shot with the Rangers, but further development in the AHL wouldn't hurt.

Speedy Ryan Bourque is undersized and hasn't stayed particularly healthy, playing just 93 regular season games over the last two seasons, but he's skilled and savvy enough that it's worth waiting to see how he handles the challenge of moving up a level when the time comes.

25-year-old goaltender Chad Johnson's second AHL season wasn't quite as good as his first and he didn't get much of an opportunity to spell Lundqvist while Biron was injured, but Johnson could be a viable backup.

Fast and skilled, Jesper Fasth may need a few years to develop in the Swedish Elite League, but he's already shown enough that he could be a real steal as a sixth-round pick in last year's draft.

Back in North America after some time in the KHL, former Canadiens prospect Pavel Valentenko had a solid year in the AHL. It's not as if the Bruins are lacking in defensive defencemen but, with his experience, 23-year-old Valentenko could offer another option.

Check out a potential lineup on www.capgeek.com, with some major additions and a big buyout: http://bit.ly/m9I1pN 

DRAFT
15th - Nathan Beaulieu, Zack Phillips, Jamieson Oleksiak.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Rangers have approximately $48.5M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 15 players.

Needs: One top line forward, one top nine forward, two defencemen.

What I said the Rangers needed last year: One first line forward, one top nine forward, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.

They added: Derek Stepan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Alexander Frolov, Michael Sauer, Martin Biron.

TRADE MARKET Marian Gaborik, Wojtek Wolski, Sean Avery, Erik Christensen, Michael Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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