Surrounded by a small throng of reporters in an anteroom within the bowels of the First Niagara Center following the second and final day of the NHL Draft, amongst the questions posed to Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton was one about the organization’s overarching paramountcy.
For a team who was significantly outclassed in its first round series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, the answer was not surprising.
“We’re still in a lot of conversations to try to make our team better,” Gorton said. “That’s our priority.”
It is in this atmosphere that the Rangers--along with the remaining 29 National Hockey League franchises--enter the July 1 Free Agency period.
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Unlike previous years, in which the Rangers were a favorite to land the pre-eminent player on the market, they may find themselves in the position of having to shop frugally.
According to industry website GeneralFanager.com, the Rangers are $15.275 million under the the $73 million salary cap ceiling. But Gorton has four restricted free agents in Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Dylan McIlrath and J.T. Miller. And Gorton expressed interest in bringing the quartet back, albeit it at his price point.
“I’ve reached out,” Gorton said. “We’ve talked to them. A couple of them more than once. I’ve told them that I needed to know where the cap (is). I needed to get through the draft. We’ve done that. ... I have an idea (what) it’s going to be for those guys depending on the term for all of them. We’ll move forward from there.
“We like our RFAs.”
Using a combined $10 million annual average value for the four as a baseline, that would in theory leave the Rangers with about $5.275 million in cap room. Which would leave them enough room to re-sign a Viktor Stalberg, but not enough to spend on the prizes of this free agent class.
Islanders wingers Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin, Islanders center Frans Nielsen, Rangers center/left winger Eric Staal, Winnipeg/Chicago winger Andrew Ladd and St. Louis’ power center David Backes are among the presumed premier UFAs.
Steven Stamkos would have been the top UFA, but he signed an eight-year, $68 million deal with the Lightning Wednesday.
“We are very appreciative of the effort and commitment that Steven and his representatives have exhibited in getting a deal done. We are excited to have him as a cornerstone part of the team for the next eight years as we continue in the franchise’s ultimate pursuit of winning another Stanley Cup,” Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman said in a statement released by the team.
Since the current collective bargaining agreement allows teams are allowed to be 10 percent over the cap ceiling during the off-season, Gorton indicated that the Rangers are allowing themselves the flexibility to engage in discussions with players and their representatives.
“We have a few guys we’re trying to reach out to right now,” Gorton said. “It’s fair to say we’re keeping our options open whether it’s the top free agents, whether it’s role players, we’re talking to them all. Because things can happen and they can happen quick. So we’re just trying to be ready.”
Still, Gorton wouldn’t completely show his hand when asked which specific areas he’s looking to upgrade.
“I don’t think it’s going to help if I tell you what (we’re) targeting,” Gorton said. “I’d rather not say ‘We’re looking for this guy, we’re looking for that guy,’ because I don’t think that helps us.”
The one area in which he was unequivocal was his view of the team compared to the league’s pre-eminent squads.
“I think we have things to do to get ourselves where we want to go,” Gorton said. “We lost (Keith) Yandle who was a real good player for us. Terrific guy. So it’s a big hit. We’re looking to see where we can go from there, how we’re going to get better. Whether it’s on defense, whether it’s a forward, are we going to make a big trade? Are we going to sign a free agent?
“Hopefully, yes, we will be amongst those teams that will have a chance (to compete for the Stanley Cup).”
Perhaps the most interesting of the three local teams to observe in free agency could be the Islanders. According to GeneralFanager.com, the Islanders are $15.421 million under the ceiling, but it seems likely that Okposo will not return and speculation persists that fan favorites Martin and Nielsen may depart as well.
Then there are the Devils, who entered Wednesday $10.416 million under the cap floor. General Manager Ray Shero, who is overseeing the franchise rebuilding, has said he is looking to upgrade the team’s talent base.
To that end, Shero traded defenseman Adam Larsson to Edmonton for left winger Taylor Hall. In 381 games all with Edmonton, Hall has recorded 328 points (132 goals and 196 points).
''I have a pretty deep connection to the city of Edmonton. I felt I did everything I could there so it's pretty hard not to feel slighted, not to feel a little disappointed with the way everything shook out,” Hall said in a conference call with reporters.
“I don't want to sound like I am not excited to join New Jersey. That's not the case. I'm a proud person and I take this as an indictment of me as a hockey player. I don't think there is any other way to treat it,” Hall said. “I think it's safe to say I am a very motivated player right now.”
Arguably the most shocking transaction was Montreal trading P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. Subbing, 27, has recorded 278 points (63 goals and 215 assists) in 434 games, all with the Canadiens. He finished last season with a 6-45-51 slash line in 68 games.
Weber, who will turn 31 in August, had played his entire 763 game NHL career with the Predators, where he compiled 443 points (166 goals and 277 assists).
“I just feel good knowing that a team has moved someone to bring me in because they want me. I'm just happy to be in a situation where I can excel and feel good coming to the rink every day about myself, about the team, about my position. More importantly I just look forward to trying to win a Stanley Cup. That's your ultimate goal and I feel that I got a whole lot closer to doing that today,'' Subban told reporters in a conference call.
You can follow NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman