All I Want For Christmas (Free Agency) Is John Tavares
With Christmas’ arrival I have been pondering what I would like for Christmas. A decked out home gym, a Brady Skjei Winter Classic Jersey, and Winter Classic Tickets (if you know anyone…) all are on my list. However, just like anyone, I have a wish list that I know probably won’t ever happen, but one can dream right? At the top of this list is John Tavares.
John Tavares will most likely become the most sought after free agent after this current season is over, unless he signs an extension with the Islanders. As a Rangers fan, I immediately start salivating over the thought of Tavares wearing the Red, White, and Blue. The Rangers have a definite need at the center position and adding Tavares would immediately cause the Rangers biggest weakness to turn into their biggest strength. Having Tavares, Zibanejad, Hayes as your top three centers allows you to matchup against any group down the middle across the entire league. In addition it would allow JT Miller to permanently slide back to the wing, where he seems most comfortable and where he has provided a higher level of production than at center.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the NHL currently operates under a hard salary cap system, which while intended to create a competitive balance, does not really do that and only hurts the players. But that is a debate for another time. John Tavares will likely command over $10M, so for the Rangers to sign him, they would need to have $10M in cap space, which will be no easy task.
This year the Rangers are currently sitting at just over $72.5M against the cap with approximately $2.5M in space with which to make trade deadline acquisitions or call ups. Next year the Rangers will have approximately $51M in salary cap obligations while still having to sign with their Restricted Free Agents including Kevin Hayes, JT Miller, Brady Skjei, all who will require significant raises. After this they still will have to fill out the rest of their roster and leave some space for in-season call-ups. But since this is Christmas I am going to ignore this subtle piece of salary cap finagling.
While this sounds highly unlikely or even impossible, lets take a brief look at the numbers. With their commitments next year the Rangers will have Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith, Marc Staal, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, Pavel Buchnevich, and Steven Kampfer under contract for a combined $51.1M in salary cap commitments when you include Dan Giardi’s buyout. This leaves the Rangers with between $24M and $30M in cap space depending on how high the salary cap rises. Based on current projections the NHL estimates that it will be between $78M and $82M. For our purposes we will work under the assumption that the cap will be at $80M for 2018-2019.
With the starting goalie, five defenseman (more on that in a bit), and five forwards signed next year, the Rangers will need to sign or promote two defenseman, seven forwards, and a backup goalie. First we will allocate $4.5M to the fourth line whether it consists of Boo Nieves, Vinnie Lettieri, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Tanner Glass or Wayne Gretzky (ok maybe not). The point is that there are always plenty of value signings, depth NHL players, or players on ELC’s that can contribute well above their contract value. That takes care of three forwards. Now we will assign $1.5M to a backup goalie and and $925K for an additional defenseman. That takes care of the goaltender situation and 7th defenseman.
Restricted Free Agents
First up is Rick Nash. While Nash has not consistently produced at the level he was traded for to do, Nash is an extremely valuable player and still is a critical member of the Rangers team, just not at $7.8M a year.
Nash seems to love playing for the Rangers, and the Rangers love having Rick Nash. I believe that the Rangers will re-sign Nash at a discounted rate this off-season for somewhere in the $5M range (maybe I’m being a little optimistic but it’s Christmas so work with me). Now we have four of the seven forwards needed, signed.
Jimmy Vesey is the first RFA. Vesey has been a solid if unspectacular performer on Broadway playing the majority of his minutes on the 3rd or 4th line, while maintaining the ability to play up in the lineup if called upon to do so. Vesey, coming off of his second year with the Rangers will be in line for an upgrade from his base salary of $925K. Based on his role on the team and numbers so far for the Rangers, I am going to assign Vesey a $2M cap hit (again, I may be optimistic but it is Christmas).
Kevin Hayes is our next RFA. Hayes will be coming off of a contract which saw him count for $2.6M against the salary cap for two years. Hayes like Vesey, will be in line for a significant raise. However, if we use Chris Kreider as a comparison (I know, not a perfect comparison) I believe Hayes will end up getting a contract with an AAV of $4M. Hayes does not have the game breaking ability that Chris Kreider does. He is not as fast, does not have the physicality, but does have better hands, plays center, and is another valuable member of the Rangers core group.
Finally, JT Miller is the final forward RFA for the Rangers. Like Hayes, Miller is coming off of a contract which had an AAV of $2.75M. Miller will receive a slightly more valuable contract than Hayes at $4.5M. Miller is a better skater, is more physical, and puts up more points than Hayes while being bounced between center and wing. With Miller signed the Rangers now have their full complement of 12 forwards (yes, I know they really should have 13 or even 14 under contract).
Brady Skjei is the lone RFA defenseman on this list and is probably the most complicated piece to this puzzle that is the Rangers salary cap plan. Brady Skjei has shown that he is an extremely talented defenseman who can do it all. Skjei can skate. Skjei can pass. Skjei can play the power play. Skjei can kill penalties. Skjei can put up points. If you don’t believe me check out this goal from in the playoffs last year.
The Rangers know this and Brady Skjei knows this. The Rangers would be wise to lock him up long term a la Ryan McDonagh. However, that would complicate signing John Tavares and since that is what is atop my Christmas (free agency) list, the Rangers will not sign Brady Skjei long term and will sign him to a contract in the realm of $2M.
With all of these moves the Rangers will sit at 51 (current committed money)+23.5 (UFA/RFA)=$74.5M. While this is a significant chunk of change, $6.5M is not nearly enough to bag John Tavares, let alone having enough money for call-ups. However, there are still a number of options that the Rangers can pursue in order to land John Tavares.
The first and most obvious option is to trade (preferable) or buyout Marc Staal. If the Rangers were able to trade Staal’s entire salary to a cap-floor team along with a higher end prospect such as Sean Day or Anthony Deangelo the Rangers immediately create enough space to compete for Tavares. However, I don’t think that a team will be willing to take on that contract without a significant overpay in prospects. This leaves the buyout option or a trade with retained salary, both of which have the same overall impact on the salary. For a buyout, Staal would count $2M against the cap for 2018-2019 which would save $3.7M and drop the Rangers salary cap commitment to $70.8, which would get the Rangers in the realm but not really.
Since it is Christmas, the Rangers will be able to trade the entirety of Marc Staal’s contract and dropped their salary an additional $2M to $68.8M will allow them to sign John Tavares in the summer of 2018.
Merry Christmas Everyone! John Tavares will be a New York Ranger!