New York Rangers gain ground on division rivals in free agency

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Kevin Shattenkirk
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Kevin Shattenkirk /

The Rangers improved their team in free agency, landing the top free agent defensemen and securing a backup goaltender. The three teams that finished ahead of them in the Metropolitan Division last year all lost key players.

The Rangers finished with a respectable 102 points in 2016-17. However, three teams in their division finished with more  points; the Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets. The Rangers looked to free agency to address their weaknesses and improve the team.

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Rangers Get Aggressive

With the newly found cap room from the Derek Stepan trade, the Rangers were able to sign Kevin Shattenkirk to a relatively reasonable contract. The star blueliner took a discount to play with his home town team. With Shattenkirk potentially playing next to Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers will have one of the best top pairings in the league.

The Rangers were also able to bring back Brendan Smith to round out a formidable top four with Brady Skjei. Adding KHL import Alexei Bereglazov and UMD standout Neal Pionk to the mix gives the team added depth. The Rangers have turned the team’s biggest weakness into a strength.

Veteran goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was brought on to backup Henrik Lundqvist. Pavelec played only eight games for Winnepeg last season and spent much of the season in the AHL. But he has talent, and the Rangers are confident Benoit Allaire can mold him into a capable backup as he did with Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

Related Story: Shattenkirk signs with Rangers

Capital Cap Constraints

After their 118 point season, Washington had several players deserving of pay raises. But their options were limited options as they are pressed up against the cap.

They decided to bring back T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov on big contracts. But Karl Azner, Justin Williams, and Shattenkirk left for greener pastures. The Capitals couldn’t keep this high scoring group together under the cap and had to make some tough choices.

The Capitals have given out several big contracts in recent years. Including these three new contracts, the Caps have ten players who will make at least four million in 2017-18. This doesn’t leave much cap room for the rest of their roster.

To get under the cap they had to trade winger Marcus Johannson to the Devils. With no leverage due to their cap situation, the Caps were only able to get a second and third round pick.

Johannson is a 26-year old, top six forward coming off a career year with 58 points. The trade gave them some breathing room as they are trying to find space to re-sign restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer, but it hurts.

The Capitals will still have plenty of firepower next season, but they will have to round out their roster with bargain basement players. With several key cogs lost, they will be hard pressed to match their dominant regular season.

Related Story: Rangers sign Ondrej Pavelec

Penguins Lose Key Role Players

It’s tough to keep a championship team together in the salary cap era. You have to give big contracts to your stars and there often isn’t enough left for role players.

Pittsburgh lost four key players in Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey. Bonino, Daley, and Hainsey were signed to big contracts elsewhere and the aging Kunitz was allowed to sign with Tampa Bay.

The Penguins were able to bring back Justin Schultz and tried to replace the departed players with some cheaper options. But along with the departure of Marc André-Fleury to Las Vegas and Matt Cullen considering retirement, this will likely be a weakened team with several new faces next season.

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Blue Jackets Inactive

Columbus was not active in free agency. They bought out the contract of veteran Scott Hartnell and lost center Sam Gagner to Vancouver. They brought in some depth players have not had any signings of note.

Both departed players were useful, but the organization feels it has the depth to replace them. The Blue Jackets are trying to trade for Matt Duchene, but the team took a small hit in free agency.

Next: Five thoughts following a huge weekend

Final Thoughts

The Rangers have been able to improve their team in free agency while their Metropolitan Division rivals have lost important players. Whether Jeff Gorton can make one more big splash and fill the team’s need at center remains to be seen. But to this point the Rangers have a leg up on their divisional competitors in free agency.