Rangers free agency plans may not be what everyone thinks
While Rangers fans can’t take their eyes off the shiny object that is unrestricted free agent Artemi Panarin, GM Jeff Gorton may have his eyes on other more pressing free agents that fill a dire need. This isn’t to say that Panarin is not a target, but that he may not be at the top of the list.
Kakko Changes Everything
All last season, speculation from insiders like Elliotte Friedman and Pierre Lebrun had Panarin going to free agency and signing with the Rangers. While this could still be the case, the moment the Rangers won the #2 pick at the draft lottery likely altered their offseason game plan. It also caused them to reprioritize their UFA list.
Jack Hughes is going first overall to the NJ Devils. He is a franchise center which are hard to find in the NHL and there’s just no way after 3 years worth of hype and family ties between GM Ray Shero and Jack’s dad that they won’t draft him. That leaves the Finnish Force, Kaapo Kakko for the Rangers to select.
Kakko is an elite right winger that will become the face of the franchise almost immediately, he is that good. But he is just another winger on a team that is chock full of them. The Rangers should also not take these players and force them to play out of position because it usually doesn’t lead to success.
Let players develop at their preferred positions
Did you see Pittsburgh try and force Sidney Crosby to play wing? Or Washington make Alex Ovechkin play center? The answer is no. So the Rangers shouldn’t do that with players like Vitali Kravtsov who is a winger, or Brett Howden and Filip Chytil who are centers. Lias Andersson is the only forward prospect that is listed as both a center and a left wing, and he should make the permanent shift to a third or fourth line winger next year.
So the addition of Kakko now has the Rangers overflowing with young wingers like Kravtsov, Pavel Buchnevich, Lias Andersson and Brendan Lemieux. These five players are added to a mix that already includes, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, Jimmy Vesey, Vlad Namestnikov, Ryan Strome. That’s 10 wingers on a team where you can only dress 8. Something will have to give.
The Rangers need another top center
As it stands now, the Rangers are heading into the season with Mika Zibanejad as their only skilled veteran center. He is without a doubt their #1 but he will be under enormous pressure if his supporting pivots are Filip Chytil, Brett Howden or Boo Nieves. Sure, Strome and Namestnikov can play the middle but is that optimal?
Both Kakko and Kravtsov are right wingers. Pavel Buchnevich also seems more comfortable on the right side, which means only one of these players will have the benefit of playing with an experienced skilled center and the others will be learning the game with developing Filip Chytil.
This means that unless there is a major change at the draft, where Gorton gets center Jack Hughes he is going to have to look at signing or trading for a good center. The name he will focus on with John Davidson’s blessing is Matt Duchene.
The 28 year old center is coming off a strong season where he notched 31 goals and 70 points in 73 games, mostly for the lowly Ottawa Senators. What’s also of real note is his 10 points in 10 playoff games for the Blue Jackets. When the market opens, Duchene is going to get a hard look from the Rangers who would give the team an incredible 1-2 punch down the middle with Zibanejad.
Can you imagine what Kakko and Kravtsov could do with either of those two centers? This could also give the Rangers an incredible third line with Buchnevich and Chytil flying around with a LW like Andersson or Lemieux.
Of course, if the Rangers can move salary in trades like offloading Chris Kreider, Vlad Namestnikov or even Jimmy Vesey they could open up more cap space to bring in Artemi Panarin to play LW on the a line with Zibanejad and Kakko.
The bottom line is that if the plan is just to add Panarin and not address the 2nd line center void, NY will simply be too top heavy and easier to deploy your best 5 defensive players on them night in and night out.
This also has another domino effect of negative consequences. David Quinn will have to move players around to get by these tactics. That causes constant changes of line mates and difficulty in getting into a rhythm that is important in developing these young players. It will also put an enormous amount of pressure on a very young Filip Chytil in just his 2nd full season.
Free Agency is about Filling Needs
Unlike the draft where you go for the best player regardless of position, free agency is about filling needs. The need now is a center. If the Rangers fail to land Duchene when the market opens, they can also turn to Jeff Skinner who played center in Juniors and with the Hurricanes. He is a cheaper option but not the optimal one since he is better as a winger.
Another route to consider is a trade. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a cap bind and need to sign some big RFA’s that include Mitch Marner. It could make them open to trade William Nylander who was drafted as a center and played a little at that position for the Leafs. If Gorton can see Nylander slotting in at number two, a trade could make a ton of sense for both teams. The most unlikely option is trading for Evgeni Malkin, because the rumors seemed more like a scare tactic by Pittsburgh to motivate the veteran center.
Ultimately Panarin remains the top free agent this summer, but does he fill the Rangers most pressing need? The obvious answer is no, and for the betterment of the rebuild Gorton will have to figure out how to get another big gun in the middle.
To all readers, especially those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice, Happy Memorial Day Weekend.