Recently bought out defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, a New York Ranger for just two seasons, hit the open market and immediately went to the Tampa Bay Lightning on a one-year deal.
It’s like clockwork, honestly. If you were at one point a member of the Rangers, there seems to be a 60 to 70 percent chance that you are going to end up with the Lightning. Like moths to a flame.
For the Lightning, the move seems like a no-brainer. They’re going with a low-risk, high-reward on a defender who has put up five NHL seasons of at least 40 points. Shattenkirk has a lot to prove, too, as knee problems have by all means derailed his game in recent seasons. Shattenkirk outright admitted that getting bought out by the hometown Rangers pissed him off. And while we could spend thousands of words on the Rangers’ failures with Shattenkirk or effectiveness of Shattenkirk in 2019 and beyond, I’d prefer to keep it simple -- who would you rather be: The Lightning or Rangers?
Now, I ask this well aware of their situations; The Rangers haven’t qualified for the postseason in back-to-back years (first time that’s happened since their seven-year absence predating the 2004-05 NHL lockout), while the Lightning have piled up (regular-season, mainly) victories at a historic rate.
It’s not exactly the Gretzky vs. Lemieux debate.
But I ask this because when I talk about the Eastern Conference powers of today and tomorrow, these are the two teams I find myself landing on at a somewhat alarming rate.
On 98.5 The Sports Hub dot com: How about a meaningless August hypothetical regarding David Backes, Loui Eriksson, and the Boston Bruins?
The fact that the Lighting re-signed the three-headed monster of an in-prime Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to a combined $25.875 milion through 2023-24 is insane. On talent and stat lines alone, the market value on those assets could and should account for at least $32 million.
That additional value has been Tampa’s godsend when it comes to building a complete team capable of competing for the Stanley Cup every single year. That will eventually run out (you’re beginning to see it with Andrei Vasilevskiy’s deal and Brayden Point’s contract will surely eat him some valuable cap space), but it’s been the primary reason why this Bolts team has shown no signs of going through the pure, unforgiving salary cap hell the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks have in recent years.
It’s also allowed the Lightning to make high-stakes trades (Ryan McDonagh in 2018) and still
be in high-stakes trade sweepstakes (Erik Karlsson before the move to San Jose), and meet with superstar free agents such as John Tavares in 2018 and Joe Pavelski earlier this summer.
They still have some room to make a big move to push themselves over the hump in 2020, too, as Vasilevskiy’s $9.5 million per year deal doesn’t kick in until the 2020-21 season. And if things do get tight, the Lightning have their share of palatable contracts to move (like they did with J.T. Miller at the 2019 NHL Draft) between Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat.
The Cup window for the Lightning remains open, but you will see it begin to tighten barring some more team-friendly deals, and/or another young breakout star out under Jon Cooper.
Now, what about the rebuilding(-ish moving forward) Rangers?
I honestly believe that we’re going to look back on Jeff Gorton’s last 24-month run as a case study in mastering the rebuild.
Since June 2017, the Rangers have acquired nine Top-93 draft picks, including four first-round draft choices as part of the returns for a collection of Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Rick Nash, McDonagh, Miller, and Kevin Hayes. Only Stepan, Raanta, and McDonagh remain with the team that sent that aforementioned first-round pick to Broadway. Gorton also turned Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, and Mats Zuccarello into two prospects, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks. Not a single one of those three players are still playing with the team that acquired them.
Perhaps most importantly, Gorton doesn’t lose trades. He breaks even at the very worst.
Gorton made a move for then-Bruins defender Adam McQuaid before the start of the 2018-19 season, trading Steve Kampfer, fourth-round pick, and conditional seventh-round pick. Gorton then flipped McQuaid to the Blue Jackets for Julius Bergman (though he left to return to Sweden) as well a fourth and seventh-round pick. He turned Ryan Spooner, who bounced around two different teams before signing in Switzerland this summer, into Ryan Strome. Strome scored a career-high 18 goals for the Rangers last season, is on New York’s books for a modest $3.1 million in 2019-20, and is an RFA at the year’s end.
But Gorton’s crown jewel, in my opinion, has to be the pair of trades he made with the Jets.
With Kevin Hayes staring at unrestricted free agency, the Rangers moved Hayes to Winnipeg in exchange for Brendan Lemieux, a 2019 first-round pick, and conditional 2019 fourth-round pick. Gorton then flipped that first-round pick, along with defenseman Neil Pionk, back to the Jets in exchange for restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba just two months later. So, the Rangers essentially turned two months of Hayes (now with the Flyers on a shiny new deal that pays him $7 million per year) and Pionk (an average-at-best defenseman) into Trouba and Lemieux.
My word. Melrose, Mass. at work right there, baby.
That two-year rebuild, which saw the Rangers part with 12 NHL talents for 27 assets in total, culminated with the free agent signings of Trouba (seven years, $56 million), Artemi Panarin (seven years, $81.5 million), and the drafting of Kappo Kakko with the No. 2 overall pick in 2019.
And with some solid foundational pieces still in New York -- I’d like to think that Lundqvist won’t be subjected to the punishment that was his 2018-19 with some positive strides from the Ranger blue line and Mika Zibanejad at $5.3 million for the next three years feels like a steal -- it’s not hard to imagine the Rangers legitimately contending in a wide-open Metro.
To compare to the Tampa Bay three-headed monster, too, the Rangers’ three-headed monster of Panarin, Trouba, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is counting for $28.1 million of their cap for the next two seasons.
That’s left Gorton and Co. with enough room to do some damage if this team delivers.
But N.Y. still has the ability to bolster their asset warchest even more should this team prove to be a step or two behind their projections -- Chris Kreider and Vladislav Namestnikov are pending UFAs entering this season -- and could even spend some more money should their prospect pool take the expected steps, with $16 million in projected 2020 cap space even with a Shattenkirk buyout hurting them.
Who you’d rather be seems to come back to the simple measurement of your own patience: Would you rather be the team that expects to win now (as in right effin' now) and has the resources to make it happen with one or two big moves for another year (maybe two) or would you rather be the team whose recent process has allowed you to play your yearly direction with a more play-it-by-ear approach, but with legit Cup hopes around the corner?
Ty Anderson is a writer, columnist, and weird personality for 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He has been covering the National Hockey League for HockeyBuzz.com since 2010, and has also been part of the Boston Chapter of the PHWA since 2013. In addition to writing, Ty can occasionally be heard on the air at 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, and seen and/or heard on the NHL Network every now and then. He will not give you his email, so yell at him on Twitter (@_TyAnderson).