Injuries hurt hockey teams and the New York Rangers are no exception, but in the world of the NHL salary cap, injuries can provide a wide range of benefits. For the 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning, having Nikita Kucherov on Injured Reserve the entire season helped them get around the salary cap ceiling and he joined the team and was their leading playoff scorer. Hmm.
When it comes to the Rangers, we all know that the salary cap is going to be an issue next season. Every decision moving forward has to reflect cap considerations and Ranger fans need to be ready for some pain (see Pavel Buchnevich).
The numbers are familiar. Although the cap is supposed to increase by $1 million, that’s a drop in the bucket for most NHL teams. Taking that increase into consideration, the Rangers will have $11,608,531 in cap space going into the 2022-23 season.
They will need to sign at least six Restricted Free Agents, some with arbitration rights. They will need to re-sign or replace Ryan Strome, Kevin Rooney and Greg McKegg.
That’s where injuries come into play. Believe it or not, some injuries will make the Rangers’ cap situation next season much less difficult.
When Sammy Blais went down with a season-ending leg injury, it was a tough blow for the Blueshirts. He was just beginning to find his role on the team and he was one of the players expected to play a key role moving forward.
Blais was in the second year of a two-year deal he signed with the Blues with an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $1.5 million. As an arbitration-eligible Restricted Free Agent, if Blais had a reasonably decent first season in New York he would have been looking for a incremental raise.
Based on his numbers from last season in St. Louis, he might have ended up with 15 goals and 40 points. That would have meant an increase of at least $1 million to a salary in the $2.5 to $3 million range.
Now, with Blais needing to prove that he can come back from the injury and with only 14 games played this season, the Rangers can make their qualifying offer of $1.5 million and keep his salary flat. He has no leverage.
Kaapo Kakko is coming off his Entry Level Contract and will be a Restricted Free Agent. He is not eligible for arbitration so he has no leverage in the negotiations. While missing the month of February with an upper body injury isn’t helping the Rangers, they are still winning and the hope has to be that he will be back 100% for the end of the season and playoffs.
Kakko has only five goals and 14 points in 37 games. Prorated over 82 games, that’s an 11 goal, 31 point season. Those kind of numbers won’t get him the eight-year, $64 million contract that Jack Hughes signed with the Devils.
On the positive side, Kakko is one of the best Rangers when it comes to advanced analytics. His 5v5 possession statistics (CF%) are best on the team at 49.34. He doesn’t get much playing time on the power play and he spent much of the season on the right side of to prolific scorers in Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. This season has been an improvement for the young Finn.
The Rangers have a couple options when it comes to Kakko. They can offer a short term deal for the kind of money that they gave to Filip Chytil before this season, two years with a $2.3 million AAV. The risk is that Kakko bursts out as a big time goal scorer and offensive force in the next two seasons and will then be looking for a big payday. While they will have more cap space in the future, with big dollars already committed to Panarin, Kreider, Fox, Zibanejad and Trouba, can they afford another huge contract?
Or they can gamble on major improvement in the future and try to sign him for long term at a reasonable rate. A good example would be Drake Batherson of the Ottawa Senators. After scoring 17 goals and 34 points last season, they inked him to a six-year deal for about a $5 million AAV. Though injured now, he’s making that signing look good with 17 goals and 34 points in only 31 games.
After a 14 goal season in 2017, Jeff Gorton signed 24-year-old Mika Zibanejad to a five-year deal with an AAV of $5.35 million. While it seemed pricey at the time, it turned into one of the biggest bargains in franchise history.
No matter what, the fact that Kakko is missing a big chunk of this season allows the Rangers more flexibility when talking contract with him.
While this is not an injury-related situation, it is relevant. While we are all bewailing the fact that the young Russian bolted from North America when he was sent to Hartford and has been exiled to the KHL, there is still hope that he will be able to resurrect his Rangers career.
The issue is his contractual status. He will be coming off his Entry Level Contract and with only two goals and four points in 20 NHL games on his resume, he cannot be looking for a big payday. If Kravtsov had opted to stay and ended up playing well for the Rangers, knowing his expectations, he’d be looking for a sizable increase.
Considering his antagonistic relationship with the Blueshirts, there’s no way that this would have ended well. Even now, if he can repair his status, there’s reason to believe that he has unrealistic salary expectations based on his play in the KHL and his salary there. While no salary information is available from the KHL, it’s likely that Kravtsov is making the equivalent of an NHL entry level salary. While it’s the same money it’s much more than the $70k salary he would have made in the AHL.
A sad fact
It’s pretty depressing that there’s a bright side to injuries and underachievement, but that is what happens in a salary cap world during a pandemic. The cap situation will improve a bit in 2023-24 when the Rangers stop paying Kevin Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi and Tony DeAngelo to the tune of $3.4 million. They will have figure out what to do with Alexis Lafrenière and K’Andre Miller who will be coming off their entry level deals, but they will still have their core locked in and will have resolved (hopefully) their second line center situation.
Chris Drury may have some tricks up his sleeve to try to free up even more cap space. The good news is the tightrope that the Rangers are walking is just a little less difficult than that of most other NHL teams.