Free agency is now just under a month away and many teams are already looking ahead to when it opens up. There will be several prominent players set to hit the open market in late July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. The Rangers are more concerned with the latter than the former, with few impending UFAs of note but quite a few impact RFAs.
Key Restricted Free Agents
F Pavel Buchnevich – Buchnevich is one of four of the Rangers’ top-twelve scoring forwards without a contract for next season, alongside Chytil, Gauthier, and Di Giuseppe, but is by far the most important. Buchnevich finished third in per-game scoring for New York this year, behind only stars Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. His 48 points were two more than his 2019-20 total, but in 14 fewer games. Buchnevich’s consistent scoring paired with his defensive improvements and success on both special teams units led to an increase in ice time to 18:44 per game, top line minutes again behind only Zibanejad and Panarin. Buchnevich timed this breakout year well; the 26-year-old forward is now a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. This is not an aberration either, as Buchnevich has shown steady improvement throughout his career and is firmly established as a top-six forward with 20-goal and 50-point regularity. The Rangers will have no choice but to pay up, short-term or long-term, with an unfavorable arbitration decision, not to mention the animosity created by the process, as a looming threat.
G Igor Shesterkin – The Rangers may have two young goaltenders in the pros and a multitude of talented prospects in the pipeline, but make no mistake: Shesterkin is invaluable. The 25-year-old netminder has only played in 47 games across two seasons since coming over from the KHL, but has been superb with a .921 save percentage, 2.59 GAA, and a .611 points percentage in his decisions for a team that has played at a .552 clip over the past two years. Shesterkin is the best of the bunch in net in New York and the Rangers need to lock him up on a multi-year deal, regardless of his lack of NHL experience. Shesterkin’s arbitration eligibility ensures that they will have to pay him fairly as well. Shesterkin is close to unrestricted free agency and the worst thing the team could do is sign what looks to be a solid NHL starter to a short-term deal (or settle for an arbitration decision) only to see him continue to perform or even improve and then price himself out of town.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents
D Brendan Smith – It wasn’t long ago that Smith’s contract was one of the most criticized in the NHL as he was buried in the minors in the first season of a four-year, $17.4MM deal with the Rangers. In the years since, he has somewhat recovered to become a good albeit still overpaid depth defenseman for New York. Smith has played in over 80% of the Rangers’ games over the past three seasons since his abysmal debut season, providing physicality and defensive stability and, for the first time in 2020-21, more secure puck-handling and a hint more offense. With a deep stable of talented young defensemen, the Rangers don’t need Smith. However, they could do far worse than someone with versatility, checking ability, and veteran experience as a depth option. He would come much cheaper this time around as well, as Smith is unlikely to have a competitive market as a free agent.
F Phil Di Giuseppe – At 27 years old with only 201 career games and 53 career points, Di Giuseppe has not much more than a depth option during his time in the NHL and likely won’t be. However, he proved to be valuable in that role in two seasons with New York, playing a gritty checking game and contributing some modest offense. Di Giuseppe’s success as a plug-and-play bottom-six forward is not limited to his time with the Rangers either, as some of his best seasons were playing the same role with the Carolina Hurricanes. As an affordable extra man, Di Giuseppe has value to the Rangers as an extension candidate, but he may be on the lookout for more opportunity rather than staying on a New York roster that is deep in young players in need of ice time and hoping to add more veterans this off-season.
Projected Cap Space
While Buchnevich and Shesterkin will earn considerable deals this summer and Chytil is deserving of a sizeable raise as well, the Rangers remain in good shape with the salary cap. They currently project to have $22.89MM in cap space with 18 players on the NHL roster, but that includes third-string goaltender Keith Kinkaid and cap charge for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, who will be traded or at worst bought out in the off-season. A more accurate projection is closer to $25.5MM with 17 players on the roster. New deals for Gauthier, Hajek, and possibly Smith or Di Giuseppe (or replacements) should come cheap, leaving plenty of room to re-sign the key trio of RFA’s with room to spare to add another impact forward or two.
Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.