Substitute Alexis Lafreniere for Jesper Fast up front and Jack Johnson for Marc Staal on the back end, and the Rangers you’ll see out of the gate — whenever the NHL gate opens, of course — will be pretty much the Rangers you saw following last year’s trade deadline.
Because, in reaching a two-year agreement on Thursday morning with Ryan Strome for a cap hit of $4.5 million per prior to No. 16’s scheduled arbitration hearing, the Blueshirts seem to have set themselves up for a reprise of the partnership between the center and left wing Artemi Panarin that was central to the team’s contextual regular-season success.
That leaves Brendan Lemieux, due for an arbitration hearing on Friday, as the only member of the returning varsity yet to be accounted for on the ledger. The Rangers have offered a two-year bid amounting to a cap hit of $1,012,500 per while the winger has requested $2 million per. (By the way, management’s first-year salary bid of $950,000 is actually below the qualifier of $971,250, which tells you again that when the team has systemic leverage, it applies it.)
The Strome agreement that followed weeks of negotiating melodrama leaves the Rangers with approximately $3,891,867 of space remaining for a roster that currently accounts for 11 forwards (excluding Lemieux and including Phil DiGiuseppe and Kevin Rooney), six defensemen and two goaltenders.
The deal removes uncertainty for both sides. Strome doesn’t have to deal with the specter of a potential New York walkaway. The hierarchy doesn’t have to prepare itself for Strome choosing to depart as a free agent and the aftermath of attempting to fill the role as Panarin’s center, deep into an offseason in which the team has not yet been able to address its organizational issues down the middle. Strome isn’t faced with the possibility of having to circle back and take the Rangers’ $3.6 million, one-year bid.
Beyond that, Strome does not have to concern himself with what might well be a fallow free-agent market next season, and the Rangers don’t have to have conniptions if Filip Chytil is not ready to move into the top six at age 21. This deal would also allow the Blueshirts to make Strome one of their two eligible exposures in next year’s Seattle expansion draft, should that become necessary.
For now, though, the Rangers have Strome, whose acquisition from Edmonton on Nov. 16, 2018 in a one-for-one exchange for Ryan Spooner stands as one of Jeff Gorton’s most canny moves as general manager.
They have the center who posted 59 points (18-41) as the righty who ladled it up for Panarin on the left, the twosome racking up a .6575 goal-rate (48 goals for, 25 against) in 700:48 of five-on-five play. Selected fifth overall in the 2011 draft by the Islanders, one spot ahead of where Ottawa nabbed Mika Zibanejad, Strome had not recorded more than 35 points since putting up 50 as a sophomore in 2014-15. So the union of Panarin, voted a Hart Trophy finalist off a 96-point season, and Strome was beneficial for all parties.
Dealing with cap issues created primarily by the 2019 buyout of Kevin Shattenkirk and the 2020 buyout of Henrik Lundqvist, and exacerbated by expensive bonus packages to entry-level players Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers have spent the offseason pruning and gestating rather than remodeling.
They also kept their second-line center.