What we learned about Rangers through 1st week of NHL free agency

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The hype, the build up, the frenzy. It’s all in the rearview mirror for the New York Rangers in regards to NHL free agency.

After rumors and curiosity, the free-agency blitz of July 1 passed, with no major moves for the Blueshirts. As did the subsequent days, which saw more interest in prospects development camp and the 4th of July holiday than in the construction of the 2024-25 Rangers roster.

There’s still a lot of time left in the offseason and just about two months before training camp starts. And the puck doesn’t drop for real on the new season until Oct. 9 in Pittsburgh and then three nights later at Madison Square Garden. So, it’s not like Chris Drury and Co. have any pressing deadlines to face now working on the roster.

One week into July, let’s examine where the Rangers stand.

Related: Why Rangers want to avoid Ryan Lindgren salary arbitration hearing

Things learned about Rangers after 1st week of NHL free agency

NHL: Washington Capitals at Edmonton Oilers
Sam Carrick — Perry Nelson-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s break down what we’ve learned about the Rangers and how they’re constructing the roster so far for 2024-25.

Lack of salary cap space again limits Rangers options

Not dissimilar to the 2023 offseason, the Rangers were limited in what they could do when free agency opened last Monday. That’s what happens when you’re up against the salary cap, again.

Even with escaping Barclay Goodrow’s $3.6 million annual salary cap hit, when he was claimed off waivers by the San Jose Sharks, the Rangers weren’t able to swim in the deep end of the pool in free agency, specifically in regards to landing a top-six right wing. Unless they had been able to shed Jacob Trouba’s $8 million AAV, there was no way the Rangers could add anything more than mid-level option at right wing.

They ultimately did that, though not in free agency. Instead, the Rangers acquired Reilly Smith in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins with Pittsburgh retaining salary. Smith’s cap hit for the Rangers is a manageable $3.75 million this season.

Other than that, they replaced Goodrow with Sam Carrick for $1 million per for three seasons. And the Blueshirts inked two free agents — defenseman Casey Fitzgerald and center Benoit-Olivier Groulx — who appear bound for Hartford in the American Hockey League.

They have roughly $8 million in projected cap space but still need to re-sign restricted free agent defensemen Ryan Lindgren, who filed for arbitration last week, and Braden Schneider. So, shave about $6 million off that projected cap space.

Sounds similar to last offseason when the Rangers signed goalie Jonathan Quick, defenseman Erik Gustafsson and forwards Blake Wheeler, Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick each for less than $1 million annually.

Drury has taken a lot of heat for not landing a star right wing. But he didn’t have much wiggle room to do so.

Jacob Trouba and Kaapo Kakko are still with the Rangers

One of the reasons the Rangers don’t have more cap space is because they didn’t/couldn’t trade Trouba and/or Kaapo Kakko.

At one point shortly before the NHL Draft it appeared to be a fait accompli that Trouba would be traded, even with some salary retention, and likely to the Detroit Red Wings. Then things got messy with Trouba holding his 15-team no-trade list until the final minute to sink any possible deal, unwilling to move since his wife has another year of medical residency left in New York.

Of course, the Rangers captain still could be traded at some point, but it’d have to be a hockey deal where the Rangers land a skilled right wing in return since the best free agent options have long since signed elsewhere. Oh, and they’d also have to replace Trouba in the top six then, with, you know, the best free-agent defensemen all off the market, too.

As for Kakko, there’d be less financial benefit in trading him since he’s due only $2.4 million this season. But that space would’ve helped before free agency started, even if the Rangers would have been selling low on the former No. 2 overall pick after a down season. Now, the Rangers are likely best served keeping Kakko as an affordable top-nine right-wing, who either is a solid two-way third-liner or one who figures it out (like Alexis Lafreniere last season) and breaks out finally with a top-six opportunity.

Rangers are still very good NHL team, could improve before 2025 trade deadline

Despite all the hand wringing, the Rangers remain one of the best teams in the NHL. They won the Presidents’ Trophy and set franchise records for wins (55) and points (114) last season for a reason. And they were good enough to come within two wins of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2014.

Right now they would run it back with largely the same roster, and that’s not a terrible thing. Of course you’d prefer a better answer at top-line right wing and a better, younger, cheaper option to replace Trouba on the blue line. But there’s still plenty to like about the Rangers roster as it stands today.

Then there’s this. Perhaps, the Rangers biggest move likely will come before the 2025 NHL trade deadline. This team should be good enough to contend without any further major upgrades, especially with a healthy Filip Chytil playing regularly, Smith as an upgrade over the departed Jack Roslovic, and assuming Zac Jones handles full-time duty on the blue line and Kakko is more of a difference maker up front. Reinforcements can be added ahead of the trade deadline and then that is the Rangers team that tries to win the Stanley Cup, not necessarily the team as constructed now.

It’s not the perfect solution in an instant gratification world. But it’s certainly not a bad one in the NHL.

Future contracts weigh on Rangers

One thing that impacts all that the Rangers have done, haven’t done and could do moving forward is the salary cap beyond next season. The Rangers face massive salary increases between now and the start of the 2025-26 season for goalie Igor Shesterkin (an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season), defenseman K’Andre Miller (a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of next season) and Lafreniere (also an RFA with arbitration rights when the 2024-25 seasons is over).

Word has it that Shesterkin could seek $13 million annually on a seven- or eight-year deal to become the highest-paid goalie in the NHL. Lafreniere and Miller each could get upwards of $6 million annually.

Plus the amount of Lindgren’s next contract and it’s term length factors in, as well. The defenseman is due a raise on his previous $3 million AAV and is in position to seek a longer-term contract this offseason since he can be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2025.

Smith was an appealing option because he has only one year left on his contract. That leaves the door open for Gabe Perreault or Brennan Othmann to play a top-six role in 2025-26 while being paid on his rookie contract, an important savings against the cap.

So, everything the Rangers and Drury do now and before the 2025 deadline will be with an eye on those hue pay raises that will be on the books shortly.

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

Mentioned in this article:

More About: