This offseason is going to be one of the most difficult of general manager Glen Sather's career. His New York Rangers are coming off a Stanley Cup Final appearance, and he has to find a way to get them back there next season. It is often said that getting to the Final helps to appease a fanbase that is ravenous for the ultimate success, but that doesn't happen in New York.
To most fans, it is all or nothing, and each fan will watch Sather closely as he assembles a roster that is capable of running the full gauntlet next season. The task for Sather is not only to retain free agents, but also to make some upgrades. He has to find a way of doing this properly with limited cap space and without dismantling this roster similar to how he did after losing in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.
There is a fine line to be walked while trying to upgrade this roster, but there are some changes that are inevitable. According to multiple sources, including Sports Illustrated, Brad Richards is likely to be bought out because of his contract, his production and the potential for recapture penalties. The team will be sad to see him go, but it is a business move that could be seen from a mile away.
There are also the inevitable instances in which valued players will be poached on the open market. This applies to Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle. Both mentioned at the exit interviews their desire to have financial security or an enhanced role, but those are things the Blueshirts may not be able to offer.
These are challenges that Sather had to be expecting regardless of where the Rangers ended their season, but what about the unexpected challenges? Rick Nash was a no-show in the postseason offensively for a second straight playoff run. For a player paid $7.8 million a year, this is something that is unacceptable.
Another unexpected challenge is addressing the center-ice position outside of replacing Richards if bought out.
The Los Angeles Kings dominated the Rangers down the middle; this is something that Sather probably didn't expect, so he will have to address that as well. This is a rare summer in which Sather will be unable to simply ask team owner James Dolan to open up his checkbook in order to address the Blueshirts' problems.
The top unrestricted-free-agent center this summer is Paul Stastny, and he could make upward of $7 million. He wouldn't be an ideal fit for the Rangers because he is still at best a 65-point center, and he is reaching the point of his career where forwards statistically decline.
Even if the Rangers want to add him, signing him would inhibit the ability to re-sign key players such as Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot, John Moore, Dominic Moore and so on.
As it stands now, there are 13 players signed for next season, and there is just over $17 million in cap space. If Richards is subtracted, that number increases to $23.7 million. That seems rather high, but when you start subtracting the salaries suggested by Larry Brooks of the New York Post, you will quickly realize that there isn't a ton of money to spare.
Not being able to spend in free agency is something that would be looked at as a negative, but not for Sather. He historically has overspent on free agents, but he has been a true GM whisperer during trades. Sather's Scott Gomez-for-Ryan McDonagh deal will go down as the trade of the century, and he has pulled off some other cool moves during his tenure as a general manager.
Although he is very savvy in the art of making a deal, he could run into an issue this time around. In order to get a top center, whether it is Jason Spezza or Joe Thornton, odds are it would cost multiple parts.
This is a team that just went to the Cup Final; so taking a ratchet to the guts of this machine could be dicey. Ideally, adding a top center would allow for the reassignment of Derek Stepan to the second line and Brassard to the third, with Moore flanking the fourth line if he is retained.
However, a trade for any of the above centers would likely include either Stepan or Brassard. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world as long as the return was adequate, because that would then allow for J.T. Miller to slot in as a third-line center behind Brassard or Stepan.
A betting man would say teams would prefer Stepan over Brassard because of his production to date, skill set, contract, youth and potential. Last year was Stepan's fourth NHL season, and he posted a career high in points with 57.
|Derek Stepan's Career To Date|
|Season, Games Played||Goals||Assists||Points||P/GP|
|2012-13, 48 (lockout)||18||26||44||0.92|
He has matured at a solid pace, and he performed well during the playoffs. The Rangers are in a Stanley Cup window, and Sather needs to decide whether it makes sense to go for one Cup now or the potential for multiple Cups with Stepan a few years down the road.
Henrik Lundqvist is getting older at 32. Martin St. Louis is turning 40 soon, and Rick Nash just turned 30. These are all realistic concerns for fans, but the base of this team is young and should get better by natural maturation. No one knows what Stepan's true potential is, and maybe his fifth NHL season could be another step toward becoming a legitimate first-line center.
Additionally, no one knows if next season could be a breakout year in which Chris Kreider scores 35 goals and records 80-plus points. Nothing is for certain, but the one thing that is true is the fact that Sather needs to walk a fine line when it comes to preparing his team for next season.
The best thing Sather can do at this point is retain players. He knows for sure that he has the space right now to sign players to a reasonable rate. He shouldn't hedge bets on who could become available, because that could potentially backfire and cost the Rangers dearly.
The Pouliot, Brassard and Zuccarello line was one of the Rangers' best lines in terms of chemistry, and it could be their most successful trio since the line of Martin Straka, Michael Nylander and Jaromir Jagr. There is the potential that the line clicks even more next season, and that would be a huge boost for the Blueshirts.
You then have the line of Kreider, Stepan and Nash. If both youngsters continue to mature and progress, that is already a plus over this past year, and maybe Nash works out with St. Louis this summer and comes back with a vengeance. That then leaves Carl Hagelin, Martin St. Louis and a center to be named later.
The fourth line could then be up for grabs, but there are youngsters who could step in and potentially mesh well with Moore and Derek Dorsett.
In goal, the Rangers are set, and the blue line will need some work if Stralman walks. Maybe that opens up a spot for Dylan McIlrath or Conor Allen, or maybe Sather fills that hole with an offensive defenseman via a hockey trade.
Maybe John Moore and Ryan McDonagh continue to progress, and Kevin Klein becomes a better fit under Alain Vigneault.
This is all speculation, but ultimately there are some essential truths about this team. The team is young, it has talent and it is a contender. It needs some tweaks but not a major overhaul. Filling the void of Richards and potentially Stralman will be tough, but filling that role via committee for the interim may be the right move to make.
The Kings got unexpected star production from Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli during the playoffs. Maybe that happens with the Blueshirts next season.
The overarching point is that the Blueshirts made the Final during year one of the Vigneault era. There is more he can impart upon this team going forward, and therefore Sather should retain the key pieces he can and then fill the remaining holes via trade.
There is still a chance that Sather makes a splash and tries to plug holes with rookies, but I think he realizes how close this team is, and he will make moves that don't jeopardize the integrity and stability of the roster for this year and beyond.