Rangers Off-Season Primer
While other NHL teams have been busy making (admittedly nominal) trades, waiving/buying out players and locking up their valued RFAs into long term deals, the Rangers have been inactive in dishing out new deals for the upcoming season. GM Glen Sather may be waiting to see what he can buy at the supermarket on July 1st before committing to his veterans. But like any true blue Rangers fan, I have my own ideas on where the Rangers stand this summer:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Sean Avery. The big stat is the Rangers record with (50-20-10) and without (9-13-3) him in the line-up. But no matter how much Avery's agent Pat Morris flogs that fact to Sather and anyone else who will listen, we all know that only three lockerrooms are big enough for Avery's ego - New York, Los Angeles and Toronto - and Slats knows it too. With Marc Crawford out in LA and Darcy Tucker being bought out of his contract in Toronto, those are real possibilities.
If Avery could keep the crap that comes out of his mouth on the ice, he'd be worth every penny of the $4M he's asking for. But, alas, that never will be. Avery's self-imposed media gag late last season proved that he can cease being a distraction for small stretches, but will he show the same discipline without Brendan Shanahan in the dressing room, should Shanny find himself facing retirement?
The Rangers have a ton of thinkers on their roster, but not a lot of raw emotion. I'm in the camp to resign Avery, if for no other reason than if he's not playing in New York I'd hate his guts. Although, I grudgingly admit I did find his turn in Men's Vogue amusing).
Jaromir Jagr. The dilemma is not if Jagr should return to the Rangers for another year (at a salary closer to his price with the Caps' discount), but whether he should continue to be captain. The Stars managed to strip Mike Modano of his "C" while still allowing the former all-star to keep his dignity. It's no secret Jags is a bit "special" with a reputation for requiring kid glove treatment. But let's not forget he took a drubbing last year for his relative lack of scoring and didn't do the disappearing act he did in Washington. In fact, he was even witnessed back checking on occasion.
The Rangers didn't sign Chris Drury to not wear a letter on his chest. He's expected to be a leader on this team, and he's a more productive player when he bears that responsibility. Just ask Flames fans how effective Drury is when he's put in a purely scoring role. His numbers in Calgary were mighty close to his stats last year (read: underachieving). If Jagr can take a page from Modano's book and pass the captaincy to the Rangers' next wave, then resign him.
Brendan Shanahan. I know he played through injury for much of last season, but he's lost a step between 06/07 and 07/08. I don't see the trend reversing in 08/09. If the Rangers were a three line team, I'd advocate resigning Shanahan for his leadership and effectiveness on the PP and PK. But coach Tom Renney likes to roll four lines and that leaves Shanny with too much even strength time.
Shanahan has had an incredible career but it should end this summer. Don't feel too sorry for him, though. The Hockey Hall of Fame will be waiting.
Martin Straka. First, I love Marty Straka. Looove him. He's my absolute favorite Ranger, and if anyone in the front office is reading this, please send me anything autographed by the man.
Straka had a disappointing season last year, but injury and line shuffling kept him away from playmate Jagr for much of the season reducing his effectiveness. If Jags stays, I make no bones about the fact I'd like to see Straka remain on Broadway too. The point may be moot, however, if there's any truth him playing out his career in the Czech league (which his agent denies).
Straka's a smart, underrated player. He does all the little things on the ice that go unrewarded, never takes a night off, and is respected by his teammates. How do you not want that on your team? Did I ever tell you you're my hero? You're the wind beneath my wings.
Marik Malik. There's no need to rehash his fall from grace. I don't think Malik has gotten gotten a fair shake from Blueshirt fans, but his time on Broadway is done. Thanks for the goal.
Paul Mara. He turned his +/- around in New York - as in he actually finished positive for the first time in his career, albeit a +1. Good thing because he was brought in to boost the Rangers power play, which struggled mightily most of the year. There are cheaper versions of Mara on the market, who earned $3M last year.
Michal Rozsival. While it's true, the Rangers probably would not have brought Rozsival to New York if not for wanting to surround Jagr with Czechs. He has nonetheless been an incredibly steady defenseman for the Rangers. Rozsival is effective at retrieving the puck in the corners and evading forecheckers. While not physically intimidating, he can do the job in front of the net. On the other end, he's even shooting the puck now and then.
Even if Sather wins the Bruce Campbell sweepstakes, there's room for Rozy, particularly on a team which lacks depth on the back end. Off-season surgery should keep other teams from inflating Rozsival's worth, keeping him from looking to hard elsewhere come July 1.
Jason Strudwick. "The mustache" is the perfect utility player. He'll sign for the league minimum, is a popular player in the locker room, can play forward or defense, and has no problems watching the game from the press box. So long as he's not a liability during the limited ice time he sees, it's better to have Strudwick as a healthy scratch than prospects Corey Potter or Bobby Sanguinetti.
Stephen Valiquette. He did a competent job last season as the Kevin Weekes to Henrik Lundqvuist's Martin Brodeur (which was ironically Weekes' actual job the previous season). Like Strudwick, Valiquette understands his role on the team - namely watching the game more than playing it. But what if King Henrik is lost for any significant amount of time to injury? Will Valiquette be able to step up? With the Montoya trade, it's not like there's any help waiting in Hartford.
The Rangers are going to have to address their lack of depth in net this summer, either by trade or free agency. There's a couple ways to go. Sign an aging vet who's willing to take a limited back-up role to stay in the game (say, Olaf Kolzig), or resign Valiquette and acquire a vanquished goalie willing to play in the AHL with hopes of being next year's Ty Conklin (say, Andrew Raycroft).
Andrew Hutchinson. Why did we trade for him again? Hutchinson was the third leading scorer in Hartford, but never got the call-up. (He would have had to clear re-entry waivers.) It's doubtful he'd stick with the big club next season, so there's no pressing need to bring him back.
Darius Kasparitius. He's served his sentence and is now free to retire to Russia permanently. Good luck, Kasper. I'll miss those hip checks.
Also UFA: Mitch Fritz, David Leneveu
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Nigel Dawes. If it weren't for his size, Sather would be scrambling to get Dawes resigned before July 1st. But listed at a very generous 5'9", he's not an offer sheet target. Once Dawes adds a few pounds of muscle, he'll be rewarded with more ice time, particularly on the power play, which will be in desperate need of a sniper once Shanahan is gone. Heck, it needs one now.
Fredrick Sjostrom. Patience is beginning to wear thin with Ryan Hollweg, who found himself a healthy scratch towards the end of the season. Both he and Sjostrom play similar roles - physical forechecking - but there's more upside with Sjostrom who adds an offensive threat with his speed. Hollweg's a harder hitter, but his borderline shots have him on the refs' and the league's radars. Given the choice between the two, I'll take Sjostrom.
Ivan Baranka. He's off to Russia, with no "out" clause. Baranka wasn't very happy playing in Hartford, but the Rangers will retain his rights. Hopefully, he'll return NHL ready.
Hugh Jessiman. Is there any hope for the former first rounder who has spent a good chunk of his pro career in Charlotte? Jessiman turned his game around last year but still isn't ready for the show. Sather would need to qualify him at almost $1MM. And if the rumors about Blake Wheeler are true, the Rangers hardly need two high profile underachievers in Hartford.
Also RFA: Bruce Graham, Chris Holt, Josh Gratton, Rick Kozak, David Liffiton, Greg Moore, P.A. Parenteau (resigned), Matt Zaba (resigned)
Christian Backman. Shaky defense and a $3.4 salary is not a good combination. Despite the impending deadline for buy outs, Sather hasn't added Backman to the waiver wire (the first step in buying a player out). But then again, the Rangers can afford to let people rot in the minors rather than take the cap hit from a buy out (case study: Darius Kasparaitis). Backman and Thomas Pock can spend next season commiserating.
Ryan Hollweg. His game is playing on the edge, but after three seasons he still hasn't learned to stop when facing a player’s numbers. Good thing the Rangers were sixth in the league on the PK last season. As I said before, I'd take Sjostrom over Hollweg, particularly if Sather manages to resign Avery, who will fill the agitator role. Sjostrom will hardly get under the other players' skin the way Hollweg can.
Ryan Callahan. He earned a roster spot based on his play as a call-up in 07/08, but wasn’t able to hold onto it. After being demoted last season, Callahan rediscovered his game in Hartford and was more consistent upon his return to MSG, but his play was still below expectations. The prospect pipe is pretty full for the Rangers, which makes Callahan expendable.
Thomas Pock. He wasn't really happy with his lack of playing time and was vanquished to Hartford as a result. That's usually the first stamp on your ticket out of town. If Sather can't move him this summer, I wouldn't be surprised if Pock asked to play in Europe (with the Euro club picking up his salary) rather than spend another year with the Wolfpack.
Petr Prucha. It's becoming increasingly clear that there's not a top 4 wing spot on the roster for Prucha. But even with his production declining, he still remains a fan favorite. Prucha flings himself around the ice like a ping pong ball, which often results in some fabulously entertaining train wrecks. And like those punching bag clowns, he just pops back up. Sooner or later, Prucha's not going to be so lucky. The Rangers are better off moving him now before he's broken for good.
Artem Anisimov. The Rangers are pretty set down the middle. I don't think there's any interest in moving him to wing, so if he makes the big club, that either pushes Drury out of the center spot or puts Blair Betts on waivers. Betts has a lot of value in the face-off circle and on the penalty kill, so unless Anisimov is ready to make a big impact in the NHL, he's likely in for another year of seasoning in Hartford.
Michael Del Zotto. It's rare that a defenseman makes the jump to the NHL at 18. The Rangers’ latest first round pick is no exception.
Alexei Cherepanov. He had a decent but not stellar year for Omsk in the Russian league. Cherepanov has yet to play the North American game. The Rangers will want him to play at least a year in Hartford to learn the defensive aspects before making the jump to the NHL. Unfortunately, Cherepanov still has a year left on his contract with Omsk, so it may be awhile before we see him in Rangers blue.
Lauri Korpikoski. He had a strong year in Hartford and a goal in his only appearence on Broadway. If he can back that up with a strong camp, Korpikoski can force his way onto the roster, likely at the expense of Callahan.
Bobby Sanguinetti. He spent most of last year in the OHL. I consider Sanguinetti a lesser prospect at the same age than Marc Staal, who made the jump from junior after his 19 year. However, the Rangers aren't incredibly deep on the back end, so Sanguinetti could be promoted out of necessity. But if the Rangers are true to their intent of developing players, he's best left to at least start the season with the Wolfpack.