Here’s how Rangers free-agency plan may not be what’s expected

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Edmonton Oilers at Vancouver Canucks
Bob Frid-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

The overriding belief is that the New York Rangers will enter NHL free agency July 1 looking to sign a top-six right wing. It makes the most sense to fill that void, especially with quality options like Jake Guentzel, Sam Reinhart, Jonathan Marchessault and Tyler Toffoli available. And possible reunions with Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko or Anthony Duclair, though unlikely, are not out of the question.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The Rangers have $13.695 million in projected salary cap space after Barclay Goodrow was claimed off waivers by the San Jose Sharks, but still need to re-sign restricted free agent defensemen Braden Schneider and Ryan Lindgren.

There are other ways to open up more cap room, like buying out Jacob Trouba or making a trade, but as it stands now the Blueshirts need to be creative to improve their group of forwards.

Keeping in mind that general manager Chris Drury said all internal, as well as external, options will be considered, there’s a chance Kaapo Kakko, Brennan Othmann and/or even Will Cuylle could get a whack at playing in the top six next season. If that’s the plan, whether it be Plan A, Plan B or whatever, then perhaps the Rangers could move in a less expected route during free agency.

Would they consider prioritizing a third-line center instead of a top-six right wing? It’d likely be the more affordable option, though it would displace Filip Chytil, whom coach Peter Laviolette said is a center even though he played on the wing after returning during the Stanley Cup Playoffs from a long-term upper-body injury believed to be a concussion.

So, the question with this strategy is multi-fold. Are there free-agent options who would be better than Chytil at center? Could Chytil adapt to being a wing full-time? Or is this plan a must because you can’t count on the oft-injured Chytil to be healthy next season?

This is another example why Drury is paid the big bucks by James Dolan.

Related: Patrick Kane would want to ‘make it right’ with Rangers

Rangers could prioritize signing center, not right wing in NHL free agency

NHL: Dallas Stars at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Depth down the middle is crucial for a Stanley Cup contender. With Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck, the Rangers have two very good centers at the top of the depth chart. A fully healthy Chytil, who scored 22 goals and had 45 points two seasons ago, certainly gives them a solid top three at the position. But, again, Chytil has had a series of head injuries and played just 10 regular-season games in 2023-24.

With Goodrow gone, there’s a hole in the middle on the fourth line. The doughnut can be filled affordably by an internal candidate like Jonny Brodzinski or possibly a free agent such as Kevin Stenlund of the Florida Panthers.

So, back to third-line center. If the Rangers go this route, they could look into Elias Lindholm or Matt Duchene because each would give New York the option of a veteran that can play center or on the wing. Lindholm, 29, disappointed with the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks this past season, but had 64 points two seasons ago, and 42 goals and 82 points in 2021-22. He kills it at the face-off dot, though, and is a defensively-aware player. His salary cap hit was $4.85 million and he’ll be looking for a significant raise and term, so he may not be a fit, though the Rangers should check in on him.

Duchene, 33, is another polarizing player. He’s scored 341 goals in the NHL, has always been a solid 5v5 scorer, and remains a skilled playmaker after recording 65 points this past season with the Dallas Stars. His production tailed off dramatically in the playoffs, and he seems to be a true hate-him-or-love-him player. Like Lindholm, Duchene can play center or wing. Unlike Lindholm, he won’t need as many dollars nor years on his contract.

There are other intriguing center options. Chandler Stephenson has won the Stanley Cup twice, with the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights, kills it in the face-off circle and has scored between 51 and 64 points each of the past three seasons. The 30-year-old will get a bump on his latest $2.75 million contract but shouldn’t break the budget.

To varying degrees of interest, there’s also Sean Monahan, 29, who was finally healthy this past season and scored 26 goals and continued his solid two-way play and strong work in face-offs; Adam Henrique, 34, another excellent face-off guy who scored 24 goals this season; and Tyler Johnson, 33, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who’s small (5-foot-8, 185 pounds) and injury prone, but did score 17 goals in 2023-24.

Again, it’d appear that right wing is the Rangers priority in free agency, but it can’t be discounted that they go this route and prioritize a center, especially if the prices for top-six right wings skyrocket.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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