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With The 2017-18 Season Officially A Wrap, Let's Take A Look At The Rangers RFA Situation

NYR

With the Caps closing the book on an NHL season Rangers fans would prefer to forget, it’s now time to start focusing on how this squad will take shape going forward. With 10 draft picks (including 5 in the top 48), a nice chunk of cap space & several controllable youngsters the Blueshirts have the ammunition to do pretty much anything. Draft selections, draft day trades & unrestricted free agent signings will be real tough to predict. What they do with a few of their key RFAs though is something we can look at with some degree of certainty.

BRADY SKJEI

Being under team control for 3 more years, Skjei isn’t going anywhere. But after an excellent rookie campaign where he fell one short of the 40-point threshold that puts a blueliner into the offensive upper echelon, Brady could never find his scoring groove. Even when the Rangers were scoring among the top teams in the league early on, he wasn’t much of a contributor. His sophomore slump ended with a mere 25 points despite a significant boost in ice time. But the wheels really came off over the second half of the year. Symbolic of the entire team’s defensive nose dive, no defender in the league finished with a worse plus-minus after the All Star break (-24 over 32 games). By the end of the season it was rookie Neal Pionk & Staal who made up the go-to pairing with Skjei an afterthought. Now obviously that’s not solely indicative of Skjei’s play. The clusterfuck that is Brendan Smith didn’t help & partnering with an injured Shattenkirk before closing the year alongside the likes of Sproul or O’Gara wasn’t ideal. Regardless, we have to acknowledge that the kid many considered a first-pair defender in the making MIGHT not have the ceiling we thought.

Brady Skjei still undoubtedly has a top-4 floor beneath his top-pair ceiling. With plenty of cap room in a rebuilding year, this is about as good of a “buy low” opportunity as they’ll have to solidify their defense for the next few years. Locking him up with a deal similar to the one McDonagh is finishing off in TB (6 years @ $4.7M per) ensures he’s a Ranger through his 30th birthday at an annual cost that’s a safe bet to end up a relative bargain. If the Rangers decide to simply give him a short-term minimal raise from his ELC & he ends up thriving under Coach Quinn then the discount window is closed. Look no further than Philly to see the upside here. The Flyers gave Gostisbehere 6/$4.5M per after a pretty rocky sophomore year. One 65-point season later & their brass look like geniuses. Skjei certainly isn’t that type of offensive dynamo but his physical play, skating ability & willingness to block shots along with 40-point potential can easily prove to be just as valuable regardless of where he is in NY’s top 4.

KEVIN HAYES

Hayes continues to be the most perplexing player I can remember in recent Rangers history. After a slow start to his rookie season he went bananas after the all-star break. Then he had a dismal follow-up which really had me questioning his future with the Rangers. Besides a flashy assist here & there, all he was good for were blind turnovers, missed defensive assignments and what looked to be overall lethargic play. Then out of nowhere he became a PK savant in his third year with the help of a much-needed offseason strength & conditioning regime that had him drop 22 pounds and a career-high 49 points. Just when I think the kid’s got it all figured out, Vigneault stifles Hayes’ creativity and pigeon-holes him into a checking role. Once the restrictions were taken off & he was given a boost in PP time, Hayes was one of the few bright spots down the stretch with 27 points in 34 tilts (a 65-point pace) while being the only regular to do the impossible and maintain a plus-rating during their collapse.

Hayes has shown he can do pretty much all you’d ask from a center, albeit in glimpses. Once thought of as just a playmaker, he then buries 25 goals. When he looked like a huge defensive liability up the middle, he morphed into their most defensively responsible option. He went from losing 2/3 of his draws to winning over 50%. His shot totals have increased every year as has his ice time. The only thing he’s got left to prove is combining all of this into a complete season. After Zuccarello is inevitably dealt, Hayes will top the list of games played as a Rangers forward since his rookie season. The 26 year-old is all of a sudden a veteran here as he enters his last RFA season & most likely has a multi-year deal around $5M AAV ahead of him. I’d like to think the defensive side of his game is here to stay, so Hayes’ offensive production will tell the story of whether or not the Blueshirts got a good deal. If he remains an inconsistent 45-point player, there had better be another 2C on the roster. Don’t be surprised if Hayes ends up pushing 60 though if that role is his. If & when Andersson or Chytil are ready to leapfrog him, he’ll still be an asset – but the Rangers will be looking for immediate returns from a long-term deal with #13.

JIMMY VESEY

The last of the RFA roommates is Vesey – and I honestly don’t know what to make of this kid. With two restricted years left though, there’s still time. Every team needs role players & Vesey has proven he’s a solid depth guy. The point totals haven’t been overwhelming but he chipped in 16 goals at even-strength this season. That’s a real solid number he shared with the likes of Draisaitl & Landeskog. Whether or not he’ll ever live up to the hype he got during the Vesey Sweepstakes remains to be seen, but if the answer will be anything close to “yes” his 3rd pro season should be his best opportunity to prove it. He’s a hard-nosed kid who plays responsibly with the puck but the one characteristic he’s yet to live up to is the two-way play scouting reports raved about.

Vesey’s fancy stats are awful, even for a team that’s habitually at the bottom of the Corsi barrel. Despite a ton of protected shifts that started outside the defensive zone, his shot & scoring chance ratios were among the Rangers worst. It’d be more justifiable if he had a role like Fast who’s predominantly deployed near Hank – but Vesey’s numbers signify teams run into very little resistance possessing the puck & pushing across the Rangers blue line whenever he’s out there. That’s a good way to have your ice time limited. He looked good though all-around when flanking his buddy Hayes, so if David Quinn decides to have that duo start the season together maybe we’ll see the best Vesey’s got. Until then, I don’t see a reason for anything more than a one-year qualifying offer for around a mil & we can cross this bridge again next year. Expect improvement, but it’s a safe bet he’s not gonna blow up & price himself out.

RYAN SPOONER & VLAD NAMESTNIKOV

Trade them both.

Namestnikov should have more value on the trade market than Spooner. He’s versatile enough to play anywhere in the lineup without being a liability. Center, wing, top line, third line – wherever you need him he can be serviceable. But I just don’t see the upside that’d make him worthy of anything more than a one-year deal here. Not with the direction this team is trying to go. Granted, with Zucc on his way out the Blueshirts crop of forwards will need to include some experience. On a squad that’ll be full of youngsters, stability wouldn’t be the worst thing. Vlad’s only solid offensive contributions over 3 full seasons though came when he skated 75% of last season beside Kucherov & Stamkos. I could hang 40 points with those two. In his two previous years he couldn’t top 14 goals or 35 points & when he came to NY the Russian could only muster 4 points in 19 games – half of which came in his debut. I’d prefer to package him with a pick to move up in the draft, but if there’s no bites then I’m not gonna lose my shit over a 2-year deal around $3-3.5M per.

The case for Ryan Spooner is an interesting one. First, I’d be surprised if he WANTS anything other than a one-year deal. Coming off a season where he racked up 41 points in just 59 games, the smarter play for a big free agency payday is to see if he can extrapolate that scoring pace over his last restricted year. There’s no doubt Spooner’s got plenty of play-making talent. We saw it often once he came to New York. That’s all he’s really brought to the table though over the course of his young career. He earned a reputation in Boston for being extremely soft & falling well short of defensive expectations there. Tough bullet points on the resume of someone who’s supposedly a natural center, but explains why he’s been pushed to wing. In my opinion, if the Rangers are gonna roster a guy who brings offensive talent and essentially nothing else, I’d rather that guy have an ELC price tag. Someone with the window to learn the other two zones as opposed to a player who’s seemingly set in his ways. So similar to Namestnikov, I’d rather ship him to improve at the draft – but a one-year $3M deal for a point-getter they could also move at the deadline is fine too.

That wraps up the significant RFA’s the Rangers will soon be making decisions on. If everyone on this list ends up staying for around the predicted amounts, that’ll leave an estimated $9-10M available (assuming an $80M cap). If Zuccarello is a draft day casualty, that’d free up another $4.5M (minus whatever the return is, obviously). Other guys like John Gilmour, Boo Nieves, Rob O’Gara, etc. could get offers as well but nothing that’ll have much of an impact. So yeah, there’s a lot of in-house accounting that needs to be done but there’s still plenty of room to bounce around names like Tavares & Carlson, a trade for O’Reilly, etc. Right or wrong, there’s literally no name the Blueshirts can’t make work. Let the speculation begin…