This past season, the New York Rangers won 52 regular-season games, Chris Kreider scored 50 goals for the first time in his ten-year career, and the Blueshirts reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015. The Blueshirts were and are still a team-centred around youth; their starting goaltender, Igor Shesterkin has earned his first Vezina Trophy, three of their starting defensemen are under 25 and the oldest player on their third line (the Kid line) was 22 years old. However, the vets matter a lot too and this offseason the Rangers need to decide which of their seven unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents are worth bringing back, leading to some big questions for the Rangers’ Offseason.
Two of these UFAs are Ryan Strome (fifth in point scoring this season) and Andrew Copp who finished fourth on the team in scoring during the playoffs with 14 points in 20 games. Defenseman Justin Braun allowed Zach Bogosian— who is not the fastest– to skate around him like a turnstile in game three of the conference final and was a liability in 16 of 20 games this postseason, so he will not return. However, the other four free agents on the radar include Frank Vatrano and Tyler Motte. They played admirably well after the Rangers acquired them at the trade deadline and will certainly give General Manager, Chris Drury much to ponder.
The eastern conference finals showed us that you can never have enough size up front or on the blue line and to add to Ryan Reaves, Drury made some low-risk signings. The first was Gustav Rydahl who scored 30 points in 44 games in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) last year. He is a big body at six-foot-three and so is 2018 first-round pick Vitaly Kravtsov who after spending the year in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has signed a one-year deal and will report to training camp. Both players bring size and while we know Kravtsov is a dangler, Rydahl may have some offensive ability as well. Overall, these two will compete with recent returnee Sammy Blais for ice time, so let us analyze the biggest questions facing the Rangers this offseason.
Should I Strome or Should I Go?
The Rangers have $10.1 million of cap space this offseason and that makes spending wisely a priority. In this case, the Rangers’ fifth-best scorer is not the priority signing of the offseason considering the backdoor miss in the Rangers’ last gasp of the conference finals. The Rangers’ offseason boils down to one question; do we re-sign Ryan Strome? The answer should be no and here is why. During the regular season, Strome contributed 54 points to the offence from the second-line center position, but did he contribute timely goals and assists? He did during the regular season, scoring in about 20 games and two-thirds of the time they were against teams with winning records.
In the playoffs, however, Strome had the sixth-most points (9) on the team behind Frank Vatrano and Copp. Zeroing in on the second round against Carolina, Strome produced three points in a series and was a minus-two in game two where his team fell behind two games to none in the series. It is difficult to score in the playoffs, but throughout the playoffs, it seemed like Strome’s play was overshadowed by all the players on the Kid Line. For one, the center playing in the back of Strome on the depth chart, Filip Chytil scored two big goals in the Rangers’ win in game six. Meanwhile, Strome would fail to produce a single point in that game, although he did score to give the Rangers a 3-0 lead in game seven.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Strome battled a lower-body injury which hampered his ability to skate. Most telling of his worth was the fact that he produced no offence in game one against Tampa Bay even though his team won 6-2. In the last conference final game, the Rangers won, game two, Strome again was held off the scoresheet and was on the ice for a goal against his team. Fans will remember the most important play that the Mississauga-native was involved in during these playoffs occurred in game five. The conference finals were tied at two games and the Rangers were looking to win on home ice. With the score tied at one in the third period, the Rangers entered Tampa’s zone with the puck. Artemi Panarin passed to Copp on the right side of the net who then passed across the slot. Strome was waiting on the backdoor with an open net, all he had to do was reach back and sweep the puck in, but he failed.
NHL.com recapped the game and omitted this play from their highlight video and the article but there is no way the Rangers front office will overlook it this offseason. Many players could have scored that goal and frankly, it is the type of chance that a player cannot let pass them by. When the Rangers make the playoffs next year, they must embark on that run knowing that to-a-man they will take care of business and that means players who shrink from the pressure moments are not needed.
Signing Copp is a Priority
The Rangers will not be able to re-sign both Copp and Strome because each will cost upwards of five million, so let’s analyze the worth of each. After his acquisition at the deadline, Copp’s first game as a Rangers was Mar. 22. The Blueshirts were aiming to secure a spot in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons and the Michigan man answered by scoring two goals and five assists in his first five games as a Ranger. In his last 26 games of the season, Copp had nearly a point-per-game, scoring 24 points and goals in five of seven games against teams with records above .500.
In the playoffs, Copp was an important depth-scorer and was the glue that held the second line together. Strome and the Rangers’ top point-producer this season, Artemi Panarin are not physical and were less productive in the playoffs than in the regular season, but Copp was more effective. The Michigan man had 14 points (fourth-most in New York) meanwhile Strome who scored 0.73 points per game during the regular season had less than 0.5 in the playoffs. This is a stark reminder that when the game became harder, Copp rose to the occasion while Strome did not.
Ranger general manager Chris Drury has to recognize the value Copp brought to this team during this last playoff run and respect him this offseason. Of course, because of his performance during the 2021-22 season, which included a solid 53-point showing, there will be many teams including the Rangers division rivals who will be interested in this ‘good cop’s services. Hopefully, they can re-sign this reliable player for no more than five million dollars per year and the contract length should be around three years to let him know the Rangers are ready for a semi-long commitment.
Was Franky V a Keeper?
Frank Vatrano is another name the Rangers need to consider. The scrappy winger from Massachusetts hustled from day one of his Ranger career to the last game of the playoffs, even scoring a great shot after a face-off in the final game. Overall Vatrano finished fifth on the team in scoring during the playoffs and these feats cannot go unnoticed. He even scored momentum-changing goals like the second Ranger goal in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals against the cup champs.
But Vatrano’s lack of size is a problem, right? Well considering he had 14 hits in the conference finals, no it does not seem like the guy who is just barely under 200-pounds somehow and stands five feet, eleven inches tall is not afraid to throw his weight around. One of the lasting impressions I have of Vatrano is a fight that will go forgotten because it was between two lightweights. In game four of the conference finals, the Rangers were down 1-0 with eight minutes left in the second period and looking for a spark. Then, Vatrano dropped the gloves with Brandon Hagel, who had laid a dirty hit on Barclay Goodrow (recovering from injury) in game one. Vatrano showed a lot of heart in these playoffs and I would bring him back but the question is can the Blueshirts afford him?
Reilly Smith has been a solid second-third line player on Vegas for four seasons now. Smith made $5 million this year and had just eight more points than Vatrano yet the latter pulled in half of Smith’s salary. ‘Franky V’s agent must look at what depth forwards have gotten around the league and think that his client is worth at least $4 million based on how Vatrano fit in on the Rangers’ first line and finished fifth on a good team in points. Simply put, the Rangers have a big decision to make; if Vatrano is worth a one-and-a-half million dollar raise, then do they offer him that? If they offer Copp five and Vatrano four, that only leaves 1.1 million to tackle Tyler Motte or Kevin Rooney. It may be worth it but then again there is another player they must consider…
Don’t forget the Fourth Line!
During the Rangers’ major playoff run, their fourth line was not as visible as the first line or the Kid Line but it mattered. It mattered when Tyler Motte strode across Carolina’s blue line and scored a wishful wrister to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead when they were down 2-0 in the series. It mattered when Tampa Bay started fights at the end of game one of the conference finals and Ryan Reaves was there to handle Pat Maroon. It mattered during the regular season when the Rangers could put a checking line out who could wear down the opposing team’s blueline and it will matter this offseason.
However, no one can argue that bringing back Andrew Copp and possibly Frank Vatrano are two bigger priorities, because both were top six this year. So, if the Rangers bring back Copp to start with, how should they approach free agents like Motte and Rooney? Motte showed a lot of spunk in the playoffs averaging just over 12 minutes of ice-time per night and contributing two goals. More importantly, when Gallant put him in the lineup when the Rangers were down 3 games to one in the first round against Pittsburgh, he made an impact. Motte was always first on the forecheck and despite his lack of size, hounding defenders more than any other Ranger.
The Rangers have a lot of scorers who do not play the forechecking game and except for the Kid Line, not many do the dirty work. For that reason, I like Motte over Kevin Rooney. Rooney was a solid player but now that the Rangers re-signed Sammy Blais and add him to the fourth line of Reaves and Goodrow, there is no place for the former Devil. He will also look to earn at least $1.5 million and because his playoff performance was less consistent than Motte’s, the Rangers are more likely to let him go.
The Rangers may not have a lot of cash to work with this summer but that does not mean Chris Drury is in over his head. The young Ranger GM showed he was up to the task when he acquired Copp and Vatrano who were just the kind of veterans a skilled team needed ahead of a playoff run. This offseason, the Rangers have to keep the character of their team, which was worthy of NHL’s Final Four this spring, and try to make moves that will not throw it off its course, a course that Ranger fans hope is destined for the summit of the National Hockey League.