Why Jake Guentzel is unlikely fit for Rangers in 2024 NHL free agency

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Guentzel would solve a lot of the New York Rangers’ problems. Unfortunately, fitting him onto the roster would be a nearly impossible endeavor for general manager Chris Drury.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old forward is coming off three consecutive 30+-goal seasons, finishing this most recent one with 30 goals and 77 points in 67 games split between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. He’s a left shot that can play right wing, a spot the Rangers desperately want more production from.

Unless he re-signs with the Hurricanes in the next two weeks, Guentzel will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and one of the most sought-after players this offseason.

There’s no doubt he’d be a dream fit on the top line next to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who have been searching for a long-term partner since Pavel Buchnevich was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 2021.

The Rangers and Drury think so too, reportedly pushing hard to acquire the consensus best-available winger as a rental ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Drury reportedly put together a competitive package, but it wasn’t enough, and Penguins GM Kyle Dubas shipped him to the Hurricanes for Michael Bunting, three forward prospects, and conditional first- and fifth-round picks.

“As far as I can tell, the only way the Rangers were going to convince the Penguins to trade Guentzel to New York instead of Carolina was to include either top prospect Gabe Perreault or two out of three from the young forward group of Will Cuylle, Kaapo Kakko, and Brennan Othmann,” USA Today Rangers beat reporter Vince Mercogliano wrote in his post-deadline recap.

Drury wasn’t willing to meet those demands, and Guentzel joined the Hurricanes, scoring three goals and five points against the Rangers in the second of the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite New York emerging victorious in six games.

The 2017 Stanley Cup champion has a knack for putting the puck in the net, particularly in the playoffs, where he’s scored 38 goals and 67 points in 69 career postseason games. That’s something the Rangers would love to have after getting two goals combined from Zibanejad, Kreider, Artemi Panarin, and Adam Fox in a six-game series loss to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final.

Related: Why Tyler Toffoli could be free agent fit for Rangers

Rangers face major obstacles trying to sign free agent Jake Guentzel

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Pittsburgh Penguins at Nashville Predators
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Signing Guentzel will be no easy endeavor this summer. Trying to acquire him before the deadline was already difficult, but that pales in comparison to trying to fit him under the salary cap this offseason.

After re-signing Kakko to a one-year, $2.4 million contract last week, the Rangers have $10.05 million in projected cap space, the ninth-lowest in the League, per PuckPedia. Drury can still trade Kakko and get his $2.4 million off the books, but that doesn’t give them much cushion.

The Rangers need to make a decision with defensemen Braden Schneider (expected to sign bridge deal) and Ryan Lindgren (looking for raise and long-term security), who are also due for new RFA contracts. If they both return, that’s likely at least another $6-7 million against the cap.

Alex Wennberg, Jack Roslovic, Blake Wheeler, and Erik Gustafsson are all eligible to be unrestricted free agents July 1, though it’s doubtful New York will bring any of them back.

Still, that doesn’t leave much in the way of cap space. Even in the event that the Rangers buy out the contracts of both Jacob Trouba and Barclay Goodrow, an unlikely move but one that would free up over $7.6 million next season, it still might not be enough to give Guentzel the contract he’s searching for.

Timo Meier landed an eight-year, $8.8 million AAV extension with the New Jersey Devils after posting three consecutive 30-plus goal seasons with relatively similar point totals as Guentzel. Wingers like Panarin ($11.6 million AAV) and Johnny Gaudreau ($9.75 million AAV) landed even bigger deals after testing the open market.

Guentzel may not be the point producer and complete playmaker that Panarin and Gaudreau both were at the time of signing, but he’s likely one of the top two wingers available this summer, which should result in a very pretty paycheck when it’s all said and done. If Guentzel hits free agency, there are going to be plenty of teams pushing hard to land him, and with that in mind, it’s not unrealistic to think his next deal gets close to, if not surpasses, $9 million AAV. He’s coming off a contract that averaged $6 million per.

A Kakko trade, combined with Trouba and Goodrow’s contracts being bought out, frees up about $10 million in cap space for next year. That gives the Rangers a chance at signing Guentzel, but would it really make the team better at that point?

Sure, they’d finally acquire the prolific scoring right wing that the team has clearly been gunning for. However, they’re probably left with more problems than answers.

Even with RFA deals for Schneider and Lindgren and making Zac Jones a regular, you’d still need to sign a defenseman to replace Trouba and possibly another to have as your seventh D-man.

Guentzel swaps with Kakko, but you’d still need another right wing option with Roslovic departing. Then you also need to replace Goodrow, who may not be a consistent source of offense but logs important minutes, playing center on the penalty kill and their top checking line.

The Rangers would be forced to fill most of those holes internally, and while prospects like Brennan Othmann and Brett Berard are intriguing, it would create a lack of depth up and down the lineup and a largely unproven bottom-six for a Stanley Cup contender.

Not to mention, it would stun the locker room to part with Trouba, the Rangers captain, and an alternate captain in Goodrow. Perhaps this Rangers core needs a bit of a shock, but that feels like overkill.

Mind you, that’s just to get under the salary cap for next season. Next summer, the Rangers will still have Panarin’s $11.6 million on the books and will also have to pay up for Igor Shesterkin, Alexis Lafreniere, and K’Andre Miller, assuming they all re-sign.

Shesterkin, who can be a UFA at the end of the 2024-25 season, has a strong chance at becoming the highest-paid goalie in the NHL, while Lafreniere and Miller could both command substantial pay raises as RFAs.

Turning 30 next season, this is likely Guentzel’s last chance at a massive payday. You have to think he’ll be looking for the maximum seven years on his deal (eight if he re-signs with Carolina), something that most elite forwards get on their big free-agent contracts.

The Rangers are in a “win now” window and thus should seek every opportunity to make themselves a Cup contender next season. However, if it puts them in a position where it’s more difficult to extend extend Shesterkin and/or Lafreniere, that’s a really tough pill to swallow and would make it very difficult to contend after Panarin’s contract runs out after the 2025-26 season.

In the grand scheme of things, the Rangers’ best chance at a union with Guentzel was likely the trade deadline. Hindsight is 20/20, but the way the offense dried up in the conference final paints this past season in a much different light than it was viewed in for most of the year.

In retrospect, maybe Drury should have been more willing to part with both Kakko and Othmann in order to acquire the elite right winger with proven postseason success before the trade deadline. And maybe that would’ve been the offensive boost the Rangers needed to get past the Panthers and reach the Stanley Cup Final.

But hypotheticals are just that. Guentzel went to Carolina and was unable to drive them past the second round. Now he’s due for a big payday, one that doesn’t feel worth it for the Rangers considering all the heavy lifting they’d have to do to even make it a possibility.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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