New York Rangers' Expensive Defense To Become Even More Problematic Soon
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Brady Skjei #76 and Ryan McDonagh #27 of the New York Rangers combine on Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 21, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Big salaries—and big salaries-in-waiting—on the New York Rangers’ blue line will soon become a major problem.

Thanks in large part to the team’s blue line, New York Rangers fans have come out of an offseason that began wrapped in uncertainty and doubt over the immediate future with a reason for excitement.

Kevin Shattenkirk is here, and the glow from his free-agent signing still hasn’t worn off. Heart-and-soul throwback defenseman Brendan Smith re-signed after being acquired last season. We don’t know much about Anthony DeAngelo, but he was highly regarded, right?

Plus there’s that Ryan McDonagh guy, coming off one of his best seasons, along with rising star Brady Skjei. Free-agent additions Alexei Bereglazov from the KHL, along with Neal Pionk and Steven Kampfer, are in the mix as well.

Trouble looms on the not-too-distant horizon, though, the type that threatens to cause salary-cap chaos.

No player in that group—or on the entire roster, actually—is more important than McDonagh. He has grown into his role as captain and the leader of this team. Finally fully healthy last season, he posted six goals and 36 assists to go with a plus-20 rating in 77 games.

McDonagh is plus-69 over the past three seasons. That kind of production is going to cost the Rangers in the summer of 2019 when his contract, that will pay him $5.1 million and $5.3 million over the next two seasons ($4.7 million annual cap hit) expires.

He’ll have turned 30 less than three weeks before the July 1 free-agency period begins. He’ll presumably still be at the top of his game, and he’ll presumably want at least a six-year deal with an annual salary no lower than $7 million. Expect no hometown discounts from a player who has outperformed his current six-year, $28.2 million pact.

Delivering that kind of deal to McDonagh, at best, seems like it’s going to be extremely difficult and painful for the Rangers. Not extending him, of course, isn’t an option. So the club will have to bite the bullet on several fronts, beginning with an extremely painful buyout of Marc Staal.

Dependable but unspectacular, Staal’s contract has been an albatross for a few seasons now. Through the Rangers didn’t swallow hard and rid themselves of his $5.7 million cap hit this offseason, it seems unavoidable.

Staal has four years left on his deal (ugh), and the team appears to be hoping that it can get a strong 2017-18 and maybe ’18-’19 out of him – even though his play last season seemed like a clear indication that the veteran is on the downswing of his career.

With Staal, Shattenkirk ($6.65 million) and Smith ($4.35 million), as well as Skjei due for a raise after next season when his three-year rookie deal expires—even if it’s a bridge contract that pushes him into the $3 million range—the Rangers simply can’t afford to have that much money tied up in defensemen, especially with Staal projecting as a third-pair player this season.

Even if the Rangers cut ties with Staal after two more seasons, saving them actual cash and cap space, they’ll be forced to carry the dead money from that move on their books for the following four seasons. That might not be so bad – if the Rangers hadn’t already done the same with Dan Girardi, who is creating a cap hit (albeit reduced) for the next six seasons after being bought out earlier this summer.

So by the onset of training camp in 2019-20, the Rangers seem likely to have four high-salaried defensemen and two big zombie contracts manning their blue line. It’s a frightening prospect, but one that appears all but unavoidable.

This might all work out fine if the club didn’t need any forwards. Unfortunately, those would help. And by that summer of 2019, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey will all need new deals.

In the case of Miller and Hayes, they’re coming off bridge contracts and will be due for long-term, big-money pacts—unless one of them (likely Miller) is dealt. Zuccarello, whose (also under market) deal expires at the same time as McDonagh’s, could be a casualty of this crunch, unless the Rangers make moves a year earlier to accommodate him in 2019.

Considering how the little guy might be their most important forward, not keeping him also doesn’t seem to be an option.

None of this takes into account the Rangers’ desperate need for another quality center, and those tend not to come cheap. They can cross their fingers on seventh overall draft pick Lias Andersson developing into one, but the possibility of that happening likely won’t become clear for at least a couple of seasons.

The Rangers’ projected cap number for 2019-20 stands at only about $36 million, but that number is very deceiving, as raises for McDonagh, Skjei, the key forwards and yearly personnel upgrades (a center!) aren’t factored in. The NHL salary cap has not risen much in recent years, and with revenues flat and expected to remain so, the Rangers almost certainly won’t be able to count on a NFL-style jump to give them what will be desperately needed relief in two years.

Sure, the defense should be strong and deep and exciting for at least next season, and maybe two with a bounce-back year from Staal. But come 2019, it won’t look nearly as appealing.