The New York Rangers decided to hold on to alternate captain Jesper Fast at the trade deadline this season even though they knew he would become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. While they initially appeared intent on re-signing him, things have changed dramatically for New York since then.
Rangers Need to Pay DeAngelo and Strome
The NHL salary cap will remain at 81.5 million next season, which is lower than it was projected to be when the Blueshirts decided not to trade Fast. This will create problems for New York, as the team was already going to have a tough time finding a way to stay under the cap.
The Rangers have two key restricted free agents in Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Strome. Both have played well enough to earn a pay raise and both are important players for the future of the team. They are younger than Fast and more talented offensive players.
This season, DeAngelo finished with 15 goals and 38 assists in 68 games, including 3 goals and 16 assists on the power play. He was fourth in the NHL in both goals and points by a defenseman. He signed a one-year, $925,000 contract before the season began and deserves a big raise after his impressive performance. He is still just 24 years old and has improved in each of his three seasons with the Rangers.
Strome has also improved since he was traded to New York early last season. He had just one goal and one assist in 18 games with the Edmonton Oilers in the 2018-19 season but had 18 goals and 15 assists in 63 games with the Rangers that same season. He built on that success and finished with 18 goals and 41 assists in 70 games this season. He established himself as the team’s second-line center and played on a line with Fast and Artemi Panarin. This was the final season of Strome’s two-year, $6.2 million contract. Like DeAngelo, his play should earn him a pay raise.
While Fast is an excellent defensive forward and leader, he doesn’t have the offensive upside of these younger players, so re-signing DeAngelo and Strome has to be New York’s top priority.
Rangers Have Many Wingers But Lack Cap Space
While it isn’t ideal for the Blueshirts to lose Fast, they have plenty of depth with wingers, and many of their young wingers are on entry-level contracts, including Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov. They will also likely select winger Alexis Lafreniere with the first pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. Re-signing Fast to a long-term extension now could put New York in a bind in a few seasons.
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The Rangers are currently struggling to stay under the salary cap because Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith are all veterans who have one season remaining on long-term contract extensions they signed years ago.
In addition to those veterans, the Rangers just signed Chris Kreider to a long-term extension and inked Artemi Panarin to a massive deal last offseason. They also have Pavel Buchnevich under contract next season but he will be a restricted free agent following the 2020-21 season and will likely earn a bigger contract than the one he has now.
Fast may be the odd-man-out for the Rangers. He had a good season, finishing with 12 goals and 17 assists in 69 games, but those numbers are likely inflated because he spent the season playing on a line with Panarin. He was on pace to surpass his career-high in goals (13) and points (33) which he set in the 2017-18 season.
What’s Next for the Rangers
Fast’s season may make him too expensive for the Rangers to re-sign. He is a leader, an excellent penalty killer and a hard worker, which will get him plenty of interest from other teams. His team-friendly three-year, $5.55 million contract has now expired and his steady defensive play and improved offensive play mean that New York must pay more to keep him. Right now, the Blueshirts don’t have that money.
The Rangers likely won’t be able to sign many free agents this offseason but they are one of the youngest teams in the NHL and have an excellent group of prospects. While they don’t have an individual player who will replace everything Fast does for the team, New York is developing a few quality defensive forwards.
Brendan Lemieux and Brett Howden are both gritty defensive forwards. Given New York’s lack of depth at center, Howden could play a bigger role next season as he has proven to be an effective penalty killer who blocks lots of shots. The Rangers could also bring back Phil Di Giuseppe or Greg McKegg who are both now free agents after signing one-year deals with the Blueshirts last offseason.
For the Rangers, their priority this offseason has to be re-signing Strome and DeAngelo, which means they could lose Fast. Fortunately, they have other players who can be used in a similar role.
As for Fast, if this was his final season with the Blueshirts, he should get a huge ovation when he returns to Madison Square Garden. He has done an excellent job in his seven seasons with the Rangers.