Rangers Off-Season: Shopping In the UFA Market

UFA Day is fast approaching. We’re less than 24 hours away from what has turned into the most exciting time of the year for fans of the NHL. Fans of every team wake up on July 1st in great anticipation to see what their team does. Many fans are thrilled at the end of the day while others are grossly disappointed.

Rangers’ fans have been subjected to a mixed bag over the years. Glen Sather is generally one of the more active GM’s on July 1st but not all of his moves have made us happy. The signing of Wade Redden I know specifically was met with anger as was last year’s signing of Donald Brashear. The addition of Marian Gaborik last season was viewed with cautious optimism which was rewarded by the best offensive performance of any Ranger since Jaromir Jagr’s dazzling display in 2005-2006.

So what’s in store this year for Ranger fans? This is a tough year to guess what Sather will do as the team certainly has several needs but not a lot of cap space to make any big moves. We were in a similar boat last year until Slats was able to con Bob Gainey into taking Scott Gomez’s cap killer off our hands. That gave him the room to sign Gabby. Can he do something similar this year?

According to the awesome website www.capgeek.com, the Rangers have 13 players under contract; 8 forwards (Gaborik, Drury, Mats Zucarello-Aasen, Callahan, Dubinsky, Avery, Anisimov and Brian Boyle), 4 defensemen (Redden, Rozsival, Gilroy and MDZ) and 1 goaltender (The King). I didn’t include Aaron Voros or Donald Brashear since both were placed on waivers yesterday for the purpose of buying them out or sending them to the minors. Although, since Brashear has one of those 35+ contracts, his cap hit counts regardless of whether he is in New York or in Hartford.

That leaves the Rangers with $14,115,833 in available cap room. With RFA’s Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Brandon Prust all likely to be back and requiring cap hits roughly totaling $7 million, the Blue Shirts will have just more than $7 million to play with.

A quick look at the names above under contract and we see a glaring lack of proven scorers populating the list of Forwards. In fact, I would say the Rangers currently only have 2 players locked into top 6 spots (Gabby and MZA). Ryan Callahan and Dubinsky can fill in on the top 6 though their games might be better suited for 3rd line duty.

Clearly, the Rangers need to add some scoring help, possibly a veteran defenseman that can play tough and a backup goalie. Let’s see what I can do given the Rangers limited flexibility.

For purposes of this exercise, I will not include the rumored and much-hoped for demotion of Wade Redden to Hartford, any possible trades or the signing of any current Ranger UFA. Also, given the lack of cap space available, don’t expect to see Ilya Kovalchuk’s name on this list. I will use the same format as yesterday by listing the player, his stats from a year ago and his cap hit last year.

Ray Whitney – LW (21-37-58, 80 GP) $3.55 million

Argument For: Even at 38 Whitney is a solid offensive winger with a winning pedigree. He was one of the most sought after F at the trade deadline a year ago because of that. The Rangers need scoring in a bad way and Whitney has been a consistent point producer, finishing with at least a .725 PPG average or better in each of the last 5 seasons. His 58 points would have placed him in a 2nd place tie for scoring with Vinny Prospal on the Rangers.

It is conceivable given his age that Whitney will not find anything more than 1 year offers on the open market. In that case the Rangers should at least kick the tires.

Arguments against: He is 38. I can see Whitney wanting to go to a team more likely to challenge for a Stanley Cup than the Rangers are at this time.

His .725 PPG rate was his lowest in 5 years. To make matters worse, Whitney factored in just 24.3% of Carolina’s goals last season; a year after having a hand in 32.2%. Is that a sign of regression?

Whitney made $3.55 million and I doubt he is willing to take less than that. That price is a bit much for the Rangers to take on given the other holes on the roster.

My Call: Monitor the market but I wouldn’t plan on Whitney being a Blue Shirt next year. I believe a team missing out on Kovalchuk will make a strong pitch for Whitney’s services. He wants to go to a winner so look to LA, NJ or someone else to land Whitney at a salary close to what he made last season.

Pavol Demitra – RW (3-13-16, 28GP) $4 million

Argument For: Demitra has a track record of offensive success and has experience playing with Gaborik in Minnesota averaging .85 PPG in 139 games with the Wild.

Demitra also played well for Team Slovakia in the 2010 Winter Olympics showing he still has some gas left in the tank.

Arguments Against: Demitra only appeared in 28 games last year and hasn’t played more than 71 contests in any season since 2002-2003. His PPG rate has decreased each year since 2006-2007; .90, .79, .77, .57.

My Call: He may be worth a flier assuming he is amenable to a 1 year deal at a salary well below what he earned a year ago. I view him in the same light as I viewed Prospal a year ago; a low-risk, cheap scoring option that may yield a solid reward.

I don’t feel there would be a need to go out on July 1 and get this guy under contract. Chances are he will be the 3rd or 4th option for a number of teams looking for scoring. Once we have a clear idea of what we have to work with, both on the roster and with our cap, then we can look at where Demitra is.

Alexei Ponikarovsky – LW (21-29-50, 77 GP) $2.5 million

Arguments For: Poni is a big guy who has turned into a consistent 20-goal scorer. He’s still relatively young (30) and therefore chances are he will remain what he is for a few more seasons. He struggled mightily after being acquired by the Penguins near the deadline which will probably reduce his value on the UFA market.

Arguments Against: Yes he’s been consistent but he’s never been dynamic. He set career-highs in both goals-scored and points in 2008-2009 with 23 and 61 respectively. Last year was Poni’s 2nd best best scoring season with 50.

Despite the struggles in Pitt, I can see his agent pushing his relative youth and his size in an effort to secure a multi-year contract. In that case, he might block some young Ranger prospects if on the roster in 2 or 3 years.

My Call: Thanks, but no thanks. If there was more upside to his game then maybe I take a chance but I think his production has flat-lined. There’s nothing wrong with a player that can consistently put up 20 goals a year but for his likely asking price and with higher-ceiling prospects (Grachev and Kreider specifically) working their way up the ladder, I’d rather pass on Poni and wait for the kids.

Alex Tanguay – LW (10-27-37, 80 GP) $2.5 million

Argument For: Tanguay might be the most intriguing Forward available on my list. He had a down year last year with Tampa but was healthy all season. He isn’t in a position to command much more than a 1 year deal at a modest salary. In fact, I can’t see anyone offering more than a million, million-and-a-half. He’s similar at this stage to what Maxim Afinogenov was last season and Max had to go the tryout way with Atlanta before landing a job.

Tanguay is still just 30 and recorded a .82 PPG rate with Montreal in 2008-2009. He’s scored more than 25 goals in 4 different seasons (was on pace for 26 had he played a full schedule in 2008-2009) and produced at least 77 points in a campaign 4 times too.

Prior to missing 32 contests in 2008-2009, Tanguay had appeared in no fewer than 69 games in any single season over his 10 year career. Durability was never a problem.

Argument Against: He really didn’t mesh well with some talented players in Tampa (although Vinny Lecavalier had a down year too). He has never been known as a prolific shooter, though that may not be a problem if playing on a line with Gabby.

My Call: I think Tanguay might turn out to be a nice, under-the-radar type of player. He should come cheap on a 1 year in order to try and re-build his value. He’s produced good offensive numbers throughout his career and would be a nice complementary piece on a Ranger team lacking offensive weapons.

I would definitely voice my interest in Tanguay early in the process to see what his expectations are. I view him as a low-risk, high-reward type. If he signs and produces we may be able to cash him in at the deadline for value.

There’s probably not much need to pounce too early as he waited well into the summer before signing with Tampa. His numbers last year definitely won’t raise his value.

Matthew Lombardi – C (19-34-53, 78 GP) $2.35 million

Arguments For: At 28, Lombardi should still be in his prime. He’s one of the top free agent Centers remaining on the market now that Marleau and Plekanec re-signed in San Jose and Montreal respectively. He set a career high in scoring last year with 53 points on a surprising Coyotes team.

Arguments Against: The fact he is one of the top Centers on the market will likely create a bidding war amongst all of the teams looking for Center help. He made $2.35 million last year and will surely be looking for a nice bump in pay.

Chances are he will also look at a longer term than I would feel comfortable with. If signed to say a 4 year deal which pays him $3.5 million or $4 million per, would I feel good about playing him on my 3rd line assuming some of the Rangers prospects develop in a couple of years? Probably not.

Lombardi has only reached the 20 goal plateau once in his career and recorded more than 46 points once too.

My Call: My gut tells me there will be a lot of competition for his services and I would rather avoid an intense bidding war. He doesn’t have quite enough of a track record for me to feel comfortable with what the market dictates his value at. I pass.

Lee Stempniak – RW (28-20-48, 80 GP) $3.5 million

Arguments For: Stempniak’s goal scoring output is higher than anyone else on this list and we all know how badly the Rangers need to score more goals. It isn’t as if this was his only good season either. He posted 27 goals in 2006-2007 while with St. Louis. He’s proven during his 5 year career to be a durable player capable of consistently putting up 40 – 50 points per season.

Arguments Against: His 28 goals may be impressive but I might be a little wary given that half of those goals were potted in just 18 games with Phoenix after being acquired at the deadline. Prior to that, he was on pace for somewhere between 18 and 20 goals.

It’s probable some GM’s may look at that high goal-scoring rate while in Phoenix and overpay Stempniak in the belief he may have broken out. He already was making $3.5 million and can certainly be expected to seek a raise on that.

My Call: Stempniak will cash in somewhere but it shouldn’t be here. If he gets his raise to say, $4 million per, I wouldn’t want to be the GM signing that check when Stempniak is scoring 20 goals per season.

Zbynek Michalek – D (3-14-17, 72 GP) $1.5 million

Arguments For: Michalek is a steady, defensive defenseman who plays a lot of minutes and blocks shots. He led the Coyotes in both of those categories a year ago.

He’s still just 27 so should have several good years ahead of him. Michalek can also chip in on the PP unit as a secondary option on the point.

He isn’t a big time point producer but does have a solid first-pass and can help in the transition game.

Arguments Again: How often have I mentioned money? Michalek made just $1.5 million last year but should easily double it on the open market this year. He’s already been linked to Ottawa due to the presence of brother Milan and the probable loss of UFA Anton Volchenkov there.

My Call: I might be willing to bend a little on the money with this guy. He’s always been under-appreciated and does enough of the little things to help teams win. I love the fact he’s just 27 still and should be in position to contribute for several more years. I think I get in early on this guy to see if I can lock him up.

Andy Sutton – D (5-8-13, 72 GP) $3.5 million

Arguments For: He is an experienced blue-liner who led finished 2nd and 8th among NHL defenseman in blocked shots and hits respectively. Sutton isn’t afraid to play physical and has the size (6-6, 245) to handle the bigger forwards in the Atlantic. When I see Sutton I see a similar player to Hal Gill.

Argument Against: He is 35 and coming off a year in which he made $3.5 million I find it hard to believe he’ll be willing to take much of a pay cut. He isn’t very mobile and may not mesh well in Torts’ system.

My Call: Considering we were playing Anders Eriksson down the stretch last season I see no reason to not keep in touch with Sutton in case his price tag comes down. He brings some of the “jam” Torts talked about frequently when lamenting the lack of a quality 7th defender early last year. One year at half of last year’s pay would make sense to me.

Kurtis Foster (8-34-42, 71 GP) $600,000

Arguments For: Ranks second only to Sergei Gonchar among UFA Defensemen with his 42 points. Foster produced 26 of his points with the man-advantage. Possesses a good, hard shot from the point

He finished a -5 last year on a bad hockey team so was respectable defensively. At 6-5, 218 he brings good size though he isn’t overly physical.

He only made $600,000 last year so it will be interesting to see how high his price tag comes up from that figure.

Arguments Against: While he’s put up other decent offensive seasons, last year was far-and-away Foster’s best year. I have to wonder how much playing on a bad team devoid of quality defenseman boosted Foster’s numbers.

My Call: Would be in the 2nd or even 3rd group of defensemen I would look at. Watching him in action, albeit not much, he strikes me more as a power-play specialist than a guy you can count on to be a steady top-6 guy. Only if all other options fail would I re-visit Foster.

Alright, there you have it, a list of UFA’s which may interest the Rangers at some point in free agency. Naturally I didn’t include every possible name since that would have taken up way too much space and I might still have been typing this tomorrow morning as free agency kicks off.

Sorry if my fellow Ranger fans find this list disappointing. The reality of the situation is I don’t see any quick-fixes on the market which will help this team win games. As exciting as this time of the year can be I think it would be best if it wasn’t so exciting for us this year.

Thanks for reading and look for my take on trade targets which I should post tomorrow. Please feel free to leave your comments below.