A concern of New York Rangers fans all season long has ironically been that they aren’t bad enough. The team had little expectation of pushing for a playoff spot in 2018-19, yet continued to hang around with the likes of the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, and Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings, rather than down with the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils. When the postseason is out of reach, many focus only on an improvement of their draft lottery odds, which has certainly been true with New York fans. While the Rangers’ pipeline is well-stocked and deep with talent at every position, the team is still looking for their next surefire star. Surely after the trade deadline, in which their third- and fourth-highest scorers – Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello – were dealt away, the Rangers’ play would drop off, right? Entering last night, the team was on a six-game win-less streak; however, they had picked up the loser point in four of those six games and then got back in the win column by taking down the Devils. The Rangers continue to stay afloat, currently ranked 13th in the East and 23rd in the NHL, with multiple teams less than two points ahead of them. If they stay on their current trajectory, the Rangers will likely have between a 3% and 6.5% chance at the No. 1 pick and combined odds of no more than about 20% of landing any of the top three lottery spots. They stand a much higher chance of picking outside the top ten than inside the top three. And there’s no reason to believe that their pace won’t continue. According to NHL.com’s strength of schedule calculations for the remainder of the season, the Rangers have the easiest stretch run of any team in the Metropolitan Division and are second only to the Sabres in the conference. Only half of their remaining games are against playoff-bound competition and five of their final 14 games come against teams presently below them in the standings. So as for those hopes of tanking, they may be all for not. With weak competition on the schedule and top young talent taking more responsibility in the lineup, the Rangers could potentially improve or at the very least stay the course for the remainder of the campaign.
- If they can’t land one of the top prospects in the coming draft, will Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and company look to add star power in the free agent market? The Athletic’s Craig Custance writes that the expectation that New York will add heavily in the off-season may be overblown after speaking with Gorton. The GM states that he is only looking for players that will be “part of the rebuild, not someone who is going to restrict it.” This likely means a free agent on the younger side who fits the preferred system and the style of the Rangers’ up-and-coming young players. While Custance knows Gorton would never say it outright, Columbus Blue Jackets star winger Artemi Panarin sounds like the ideal target to fit that mold. The 27-year-old has the immense talent to be a short-term difference-maker and the youth and longevity to be a long-term fit who doesn’t clog up cap space down the road. All three of the New York-area teams have been considered likely landing spots for Panarin, the top free agent forward this summer, but the draw of playing in the heart of the Big Apple in front of a Madison Square Garden crowd could be enough to entice Panarin, who has his sights set on growing his persona in the next stage of his career.
- If the Rangers are going to sign Panarin, it is going to take money and a lot of it. One player who could be shown the door to accommodate the need for extra cap space could be defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The Rangers’ big free agent addition just two years ago has not been the player that the team expected and the New York Post’s Larry Brooks believes that he is fighting for life in these final games of the season. Shattenkirk was a healthy scratch the other night for the second time this season, parking himself and his $6.65MM AAV salary in the press box. He has just 23 points on the year so far, the same amount as last season when he missed close to half of the season due to injury. Compare that to 40+ points in five of his six seasons prior to joining New York and it explains why patience is running out. Brooks feels that if Shattenkirk cannot show substantial improvement in his effort and results down the stretch, he could be a prime candidate for a buyout this summer. Per CapFriendly, such a move would save the Rangers more than $5MM against the cap next season, with minor savings in 2020-21 as well, at a cost of just $1.433MM in each of the two seasons after. Despite it being a buyout that makes sense on paper, Brooks writes that “no one wants this”. He has spoken to both Shattenkirk and head coach David Quinn about what Shattenkirk needs to do to improve on his slow, overly-methodical style and it sounds as if they are on the same page. “I know what I have to do, I know how I have to play,” Shattenkirk says, but the question is whether he can actually do it. Failure to act on his shortcomings could mean his days in New York are numbered.