ESNY's Live NHL Trade Deadline Tracker: Jarome Iginla to LA 1
Nov 9, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) waits for a face-off during the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in years, free agency arrives with the New York Rangers’ approach inexplicably uncertain. 

Any doubts that the New York Rangers are facing a vastly different offseason than in recent years were put to rest by the King himself.

“You expect changes every year because that’s just part of the business we’re in, but this summer has been a little different because of the magnitude of the moves,” star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist told Larry Brooks of the New York Post in an email from his home in Sweden this week. “Losing guys that you have played with for so long will obviously affect you on a personal level.

“These are players you get to know really well over the years. You care for them and their families. We’re all going to miss them.”

If the longest-tenured Ranger doesn’t know what to expect in the coming months, how could the fans?

On the eve of the free-agency period’s beginning, it seems impossible to predict what course the Broadway Blueshirts will take following the departure of two core players that signaled a clear move away from the past. What does the future hold? That will become at least somewhat obvious in the next 24-48 hours.

Does the club pursue top free-agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in what will be a financial bonanza for the local product? Add a desperately needed centerman such as Nick Bonino or the aging Joe Thornton? Hoard its salary cap space in anticipation of needing to re-sign key players next summer and perhaps making a bigger splash on the free-agent market in coming years?

Really, it seems like anybody’s guess — a huge sea change from past Jul. 1, when the team’s commitment to capturing a championship with its core group was the only priority.

General manager Jeff Gorton said during the NHL draft telecast that the club is trying to “rebuild on the fly,” but that doesn’t lay out an obvious direction by any means.

With the newfound cap room created by the buyout of Dan Girardi and the stunning trade of Derek Stepan, the knee-jerk sentiment is that the Rangers will jump in with both feet and compete for the top free agents – Shattenkirk being exactly what they need on the all-but-empty right side of their defense and at the point on the power play, Thornton or Bonino or the like to replenish a center corps that for the moment, has only two candidates for four spots.

It seems somewhere in the realm of likely, though, that the faction of fans hoping for and/or expecting that approach will be disappointed.

The Stepan deal with Arizona netted the seventh overall pick in the draft, which was turned into center Lias Andersson, who could find himself at Madison Square Garden sooner rather than later. The Rangers also got young right-handed defenseman Anthony DeAngelo in the trade, then added forward Filip Chytil with their own selection, 21st overall, amongst seven picks in the draft.

“We had some players we liked,” Gorton told the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis, “and we wanted to get (into the top 10 in the draft).”

Speculation that the club would package those two first-rounders as part of a deal for an established player proved to be just that, as the focus seemed to be on replenishing a system decimated by four straight years of trading first-round picks for veterans in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Gorton’s plan of attack so far seemingly represents an admission that the previous core had gone as far as it could go. Is there a reason to believe that philosophy will change starting Saturday?

Certainly, Gorton will probably look to sign a center, with Stepan gone and the promising Oscar Lindberg selected by Vegas in the expansion draft earlier in June. But to add a big contract for a center that will likely hurt down the line – right after Gorton was able to shed a big contract for a center that would have hurt down the line?

A more manageable, shorter deal with a second-tier player seems more likely. It’s difficult to tell, though. The team is in uncharted territory after years of competing for the Cup, and the front office hasn’t been terribly vocal in establishing a course going forward.

Feb 2, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) handles the puck during the second period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Keeping defenseman Brendan Smith proved a priority, as the Rangers agreed to terms on a four-year, $17.4 million deal with the pending free agent Wednesday. Smith was a terrific fit on Broadway and wanted to stay, but the club also didn’t want to lose him after giving up second- and third-round draft picks (recurring theme alert) to get him last season.

That move possibly put an end to the dream of adding Shattenkirk, who will cost a fortune in dollars and years after the bidding war for his services. As much as he fits the bill for the Rangers, many evaluators feel he’s not a top-pair defenseman, despite the fact that he will certainly end up being paid like one.

Trying to win a championship with/for Lundqvist remains a deeply admirable goal, but Gorton’s job is to look at the numbers. He needs to re-sign restricted free-agent center Mika Zibanejad, which might prove more expensive than the GM prefers, as well as versatile forward Jesper Fast.

Perhaps more importantly, when Gorton thinks about the summer of 2018, he envisions a restricted free-agent list that could look like this: J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei and Jimmy Vesey, and Michael Grabner of the unrestricted variety.

Even with Rick Nash‘s $8 million hit coming off just in time for that, unless the GM decides to trade a few of those players, he’ll need plenty of cap space.

A rough description of Gorton’s plan could be one step back for two eventual ones forward. He appears convinced that his mostly young club isn’t a serious contender and that last season’s playoff disappointment marked the end of an illustrious chapter in team history. Penning the next one might mean some setup writing before the next big moment in the story.

What that could mean specifically is resisting the Shattenkirk and Co. urge. Or maybe we’re in for some big surprises and a spending splurge. It’s anyone’s guess this year as the frenzy begins – if the Rangers are indeed part of it.

Brian Boyle or Dominic Moore, anyone?