Rangers Free Agents: Who Should Stay, Who Should Go?

Today I will look at the Rangers in free agency as it pertains to their own guys. Here’s a break down of several of the Blue Shirts top UFA’s and RFA’s. I’ve included last year’s stats, salary and free agency status along with arguments for and against retaining the player plus my final take on the situation. In no particular order here we go.

Vinny Prospal – C (20-38-58, 75 GP) $1.15 million (UFA)

Argument For: Vinny was the club’s 2nd leading scorer last year and often was the only consistent offensive threat aside from Gaborik. Prospal proved to be versatile in splitting time at both Wing and Center. He was effective in the face-off circle winning just more than 51%.

Prospal averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time a game and contributed 6 power play tallies; good for a 3rd place tie on the team. He’s played under Torts both with Tampa and now the Rangers and has been successful in both places.

He earned just $1.15 million after Tampa bought him out of the final 3 years of his contract there.

Argument Against: Vinny has a history of alternating good seasons with bad which doesn’t bode well for next year. The 6 seasons prior to his arrival in Manhattan articulate that quite well:

Year Points Scored Points Per Game (PPG)
02-03 79 .99
03-04 54 .66
05-06 80 .99
06-07 55 .67
07-08 71 .89
08-09 45 .55

Last season, Prospal recorded 58 points (.77 points per game) last season. Might a regression be in the cards for next season?

While getting off to a fine start in 2009-2010, Prospal’s production tailed off somewhat after the Olympic break. Prior to the break, Prospal had recorded 47 points (.81 ppg) in 58 contests. Following the break, Vinny scored just 11 points (.55 ppg) in his final 20 outings.

The final point to consider is Prospal’s salary demands. Last season, the Rangers were able to get him on the cheap since his contract was bought out on July 29th; well into the free agent signing period. Many teams had already exhausted their budget and there were few teams able to add Prospal. The Rangers were able to swoop in and land the skilled forward for below market value as a result.

This year will be different. Prospal will be available to the highest bidder on July 1st. With the two premier offensive Centers, Patrick Marleau and Tomas Plekanec, off the board already it is probable Prospal will attract interest from teams looking for a scoring forward capable of playing Center.

Prospal also maintains a home in the Tampa area so there may be an interest on his part to play closer to home. Perhaps Atlanta takes a run at him to offset the loss of Kovalchuk’s production and the likely departure of UFA F Maxin Afinogenov.

My Call: Touch base with Prospal and let him know we’d love to have him back. Let the market play out before deciding what type of offer to make. There may be better options for us out on the market place be it via trade or free agency. Prospal isn’t the difference between making the playoffs and not.

My guess is someone will offer 2 years at a salary at double what he made last year or more. That’s an offer we just may not want to match. If the market evolves and Prospal is open to another one-year deal at a salary around $1.75 - $2 million then that’s something I can handle.

Olli Jokinen – C (15-35-50, 82 GP) $5.5 million (UFA)

Argument For: Jokinen is one of the few Rangers with a track record of scoring. He has scored as many as 39 goals in a season (06-07) and 90+ points (also 06-07). In what is shaping up to be a thin market for free agent F, it may not be easy for the Rangers to find a better option than Joker.

Jokinen made an absurd cap number last season, $5.5 million and due to declining production might be had for much less on a short-term deal.

Argument Against: It was hoped that Jokinen would recapture the scoring touch that made him one of the elite players just a few short years ago when he was acquired by the Rangers. That didn’t happen. He recorded just 15 points in 26 games on Manhattan.

The indelible image Jokinen left in his short stay was that of him flubbing his shootout attempt in game 82 against the Flyers. His failure to score in that spot may have cost us a playoff spot. Rangers’ fans will never remember Joker too kindly.

Since scoring career highs in goals (39) and points (91) in 06-07, Jokinen’s production has declined each season. His output last season represented a 7 year low for the big Center. His is not representative of a positive trend line.

My Call: Move on already. He had his chance to prove himself a capable scoring F in the NHL and failed when it mattered most. Chances are some team desperate for offense will overpay Joker based on his numbers from 3 and 4 years ago.

To me, re-signing Jokinen would represent the absolute last resort. I only entertain the possibility if none of our young players (Anisimov, Stepan or Grachev) show they are ready for prime time, we are completely unable to add any other top 6 F, and Joker is willing to take a Prospal-like contract; one year and a low salary. Otherwise it’s “don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you, Olli.”

Jody Shelley – LW (2-7-9, 57 GP) $725,000 (UFA)

Argument For: Shelley was imported only after the epic FAIL that was Donald Brashear. Jody is a capable heavyweight willing to throw down with anyone in the league. He provided toughness and leadership while taking a regular spin on the 4th line down the stretch for the Rangers.

The 4th line of Shelley, AA, Prust was the Rangers’ best down the stretch. Shelley provided some unexpected offense pitching in 6 points in his final 16 games of the regular season; including both of his goals in must-win games against Philadelphia to close out the season.

Shelley’s salary a year ago was a reasonable $725,000. While the Rangers do have some young guys (Weise, Byers, etc.) that may be capable of filling Shelley’s role, I believe Torts can find a way to rotate some F if those guys make a good case to be part of this team coming out of camp.

Argument Against: Unless Shelley makes an unrealistic salary demand or insists on multiple years, I can’t think of a reason not to re-sign him. As I said, even if the kids are ready there are enough openings on the roster to find time for all of them. I’m confident Torts would appreciate having some roster flexibility.

My Take: Get the guy under contract. Make an offer of 1 year and $850,000. The salary represents an increase of more than 17% which should appease Shelley. The sooner you get him under contract the sooner you can move to address other priorities. We saw how not having a dependable 4th line tough guy like Shelley hurt us at times last year so now that we have one it isn’t a good time to monkey around.

Brandon Prust – RW (5-9-14, 69 GP) $525,000 (RFA)

Arguments For: Prust was basically a throw-in in the Jokinen for Kotlaik and Higgins deal. However he became a fan-favorite with his work-ethic, hustle and toughness. He also chipped in more offense than expected (4-5-9, in 26 games with the Rangers). He was a willing combatant and stood up for his mates at any time; something some of the other Rangers seemed reluctant to do much.

Prust just completed his 3rd season in the league and earned just $525,000. It would seem he would be another affordable option for the 4th line. He flashed enough offensive ability to warrant an opportunity to maybe even skate a few shifts in the top 9. He was also good on the PK unit, helping it to one of the better marks in the NHL.

Arguments Against: Again, I really can’t think of any. He’s just a RFA with no arbitration rights so he doesn’t have much leverage. In fact, the Rangers already submitted a qualifying offer of $577,500 to keep him around.

My Call: Again, this is a no-brainer. Of course the team has already qualified him so Prust should be back in the fold. To encourage him to hurry up and sign the qualifying offer I’d go ahead and tack on a 2nd year at $650,000 if it would make a difference. He consistently brought a lot of energy and I want him back.

Marc Staal – D (8-19-27, 82 GP) $765,000 (RFA)

Arguments For: Quite simply Staal has been our best Defenseman in each of the last 2 seasons. He is consistently matched up against the other team’s best players and has been successful keeping them off the score sheet as his +11 mark last year would indicate.

Staal is just 23 years-old but already has 3 years of NHL experience under his belt. His offensive production nearly doubled last year (15 points in 08-09 to 27 points last year) but there still is some untapped abilities there. Staal may one day be a consistent 35 – 40 point scorer in this league in addition to being a very good, defensive Defenseman.

Arguments Against: Sather has already leaked that Staal’s camp has reportedly rejected a 4 year, $14 million contract offer from the team. This isn’t the first time the club has taken a strong-arm approach to RFA negotiations. Last year it was Dubinsky and this year it looks like it may be Staal.

Staal’s agent supposedly said they are looking for “substantially more” than what has already been offered. What “substantially more” means in terms of dollars and/or years is anyone’s guess.

If Staal and Orr are looking at the deals of Redden and Rozsival as comparables then they may need to tone down their expectations. Yes, Staal is more important than either of those two players but Redden and Rozsival had the leverage of being UFA’s working on their behalf. Staal is just a RFA and unless someone signs him to an offer sheet his negotiating power is very limited.

My Call: I would hold to my original offer for the time being. It is on par with what similar players received as RFA’s (Kris Letang comes immediately to mind). I would keep my mouth shut to the press for now. It isn’t necessary to trash the kid for trying to maximize his value; not if you really view him as an integral piece of the future.

Wait to see what type of market develops for Staal, if any. Move on by trying to lock up Shelley, Prust, and Ryan McDonagh. This situation will come back around by the middle of July. If Staal is still holding to his guns by the opening of August, then up the offer to $4 million per. I think it’s imperative to show Staal you respect him and his play. Most importantly, keep the negotiations out of the press!

Dan Girardi – D (6-18-24, 82 GP) $1.55 million (RFA)

Arguments For: Girardi has gone from undrafted free agent to top 4 Defenseman on the Rangers team in 4 years. He forms a very solid shut-down pair with Staal. He flashes some above-average offensive tools from time to time.

Over the last thre seasons, Girardi has averaged better than 21 minutes of ice time per contest. He has been among the league leaders in blocked shots over the last couple of campaigns.

Arguments Against: Again, money may be an issue here. Supposedly Girardi is asking for $3 million or more in a 3 year deal. That represents a figure nearly twice what he made in each of the last two seasons. It’s also a tad high when compared to some other veterans in recent years. Players like Paul Mara, Jay McKee etc. are generally available every off-season on the cheap. Granted Girardi is better than those two examples at this point but there are options other than overpaying Girardi.

The biggest negative on Girardi last year was his disinterest in coming to the aid of Marian Gaborik when the star Winger became involved in a tussle with Flyers’ PUNK Dan Carcillo. Girardi’s lack of action in that case was symbolic of how the Rangers reacted for much of the season in the face of physical play but Girardi gets the lion-share of the heat because of one incident.

My Call: Again, Girardi has virtually no leverage so I would sit back and let other pieces fall where they may. I would then offer Girardi his 3 years but at a salary around $2.5 million. That’s enough money to be respectful without risking overpaying. If term is more important than salary then offer the 4th year.

Erik Christensen – C (8-18-26, 58 GP) $750,000 (UFA)

Arguments For: Christensen was at times the best F on the ice for the Rangers last year. He showed some offensive flair by averaging better than .5 PPG as a Ranger. He can skate well and is still young enough (26) to further improve his production.

Arguments Against: Erik was a 1st line player out of necessity for the Rangers last year and may have benefited from playing with Gaborik. He was too inconsistent to earn regular time in the top 6.

My Call: The Rangers have already declined to submit a qualifying offer of $825,000 for 2010-2011, thus making Christensen a UFA. Various outlets say the Rangers are interested in bringing him back and are in fact talking about a 2 year deal.

It was probably smart for the Rangers to back away from the qualifying offer. It is a calculated risk but since Christensen was picked up off the streets last season after Anaheim dumped him I can’t imaging there will be a huge market for his services.

In fact, the Rangers may have already dropped the idea of a 2 year offer to Erik with the belief he may find that type of security appealing. Since some F prospects are projected to be ready either sometime this year or next, I would want Christensen back at roughly the same amount he made last year. On a 2 year deal then maybe $700,000 per would be enough to get it done.

If he’s amenable to that then you’ve locked up a serviceable, albeit inconsistent, F for a low price. Plus, if one of the Rangers prospects is ready to assume a spot in the top 6 then the salary is easy to stuff down in Hartford.

I would rather find a better option for our top 6 whether through trade or free agency but at least re-signing Christensen is a decent fall back in the event nothing better comes along.