This week's Eastern Edge discusses the offseason outlook for the Rangers and Panthers.
After covering the offseason outlook for the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers last week, we continue our march through the Eastern Conference. This week will see the spotlight put on the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers, the final two teams eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The focus will be put primarily on the short-term rather than the long-term future, although the developments of the next few months will certainly have a great impact on keeper leagues as well.
Teams previously covered
While the Rangers failed to match their 113-point effort from 2014-15, they managed to once again hit the century mark as they finished with 101 points, good for third in the Metropolitan division. Their most impressive team stat was finishing seventh with 233 goals. However, this was accomplished while averaging just 28.5 shots per game, 28th-best in the league. This would indicate the team was a bit lucky on offense this year.
At the defensive end the Rangers were an average squad finishing middle-of-the-pack with 215 goals against (16th) and 30.4 shots against per game (19th). Meanwhile, their poorest defensive measure was the penalty kill which ranked 26th in efficiency at just 78.2 percent.
With the team constantly dancing around the salary cap, and dishing out assets in order to help remain competitive, look for more changes this summer. Losing in the first round is disappointing but the Rangers have been deep in the postseason several times in recent years. There could be some significant deals in the coming months, but look for the end result to be another effort to ice a contending team.
Up front, the Rangers are fairly set on the scoring lines with a talented group that lacks a reliable top-end producer. The most fantasy-relevant is Rick Nash, who has had monster years before, but is also very unreliable as evidenced by his mediocre 36 points in 60 games. Although the rest of the group does not possess Nash’s upside, the trio of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan has proven to be more dependable as 50-60-point players.
Also in the top-six is Chris Kreider, a 25-year-old power forward who is great in multi-category leagues but will likely not match his perceived value in points-only leagues. There is still room for improvement and bigger forwards tend to break out later but seeing him fall short of expectations two seasons in a row is concerning.
Finally, J.T. Miller picked up where he left off in 2014-15 as an excellent depth scorer who had success despite limited minutes. This year with more responsibility he nearly doubled last year’s output with 43 points including 22 goals. However, be mindful of his shooting percentage (17 percent) which is a very difficult rate to maintain. He may not be able to reach 20 goals again unless he sees another increase in ice time next year.
Even though Eric Staal did not do much for the Rangers after being acquired at the trade deadline, his expected departure in July leaves a hole in the team’s depth chart that must be filled. This also opens up some opportunities internally. Kevin Hayes, who is talented enough to play on a scoring line, is a logical choice to center the third line and his production would benefit from an increase on his average ice time of 13:39. Otherwise, newcomer Oscar Lindberg could be up for the task after a solid rookie campaign. One to watch is Jesper Fast who more than doubled his rookie total with a 30-point sophomore year and saw his ice time jump to just under 15 minutes per contest.
On the blue line, the elephant in the room is the probable departure of Keith Yandle as a free agent this summer. Obviously, a replacement will be needed and for cap reasons the Rangers may go the trade route. The likes of Kevin Shattenkirk and Tyson Barrie have been mentioned as potentially available this offseason.
Depending on how the team addresses the loss of Yandle, Ryan McDonagh’s fantasy value could benefit if the Rangers need to deploy him in a more offensive role. There is certainly room for him to match his 43-point output from 2014 next year. Kevin Klein could also benefit from the changes, and with back-to-back 26-point seasons under his belt, he is not far from being fantasy-relevant.
Dylan McIlrath, who spent much of his rookie campaign in the press box, figures to see the ice more consistently in year two. With Dan Boyle expected to retire, there will be more opportunity for McIlrath to dress. If he can get into the lineup consistently, he will be a multi-category monster, perhaps even in line with Radko Gudas.
In goal, Henrik Lundqvist remains the undisputed starting goalie. His numbers are no longer at the top of the league but his ability to get 30 or more wins and a .920 save percentage or better is remarkable. His backup Antti Raanta recently signed a two-year extension and should remain a quality backup who will not be valuable in fantasy leagues unless Lundqvist goes down long-term.
In the prospect ranks, the Rangers should be getting some help this fall. Pavel Bucnhevich, who has done well in the KHL, is now signed with the Rangers, and should be on the squad for opening night. His long-term upside is no doubt very high, but immediate production is far from a given. In one-year leagues, it would be wise to slot him as a late-round gamble where a disappointment will not prove costly.
With Boyle moving on, former first-round pick Brady Skjei might be called upon to pick up the puck-moving slack. His size and skating ability should make him a reliable defender but do not expect much from him in terms of production.
The Panthers had a very successful year with its young core coming together to produce a division title and home-ice advantage in the first round. While they eventually lost to the New York Islanders, the team has a very bright future with its existing core of high-end young talent along with many other new faces coming up through the pipeline.
Statistically, the Panthers did well with a plus-32 goal differential, but there are concerns. They finished eighth with 232 goals, but just 24th with an average of 28.8 shots per game, indicating they were also pretty lucky in the goal-scoring department. They were also not very good on special teams as they ranked 23rd on the power play and 24th on the penalty kill. Their strength was on the defensive side of the rink as the team was seventh in goals against and 13th in shots against per game.
Up front, the Panthers possess a lot of talent which this year was headed by a pair of veterans in Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen. Both are up there in years, and their recent scoring patterns do not match their most recent output, which likely means they are in for a decline in the year to come. Here, their age can help you on draft day as rival GMs will be more likely to pass on the veterans, allowing you to snag them at a more reasonable spot.
Franchise center Aleksander Barkov took the next step towards stardom as he notched 59 point in 66 games. This put him on pace for 73 points, but he has been injury-prone so far in his NHL career, missing 55 games due to various ailments in his first three NHL campaigns. Keep this in mind if you are in a league that has restricted IR capacity or limits on free agent signings.
Joining them in the top-six are Jonathan Huberdeau and Reilly Smith, a pair of forwards that eclipsed 50 points but thus far have not been consistent enough to take their game to a higher level. Huberdeau in particular has been frustrating because he has the potential to eclipse 70 points.
This year, Vincent Trocheck had a breakout campaign which was aided by injuries to Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. Trocheck has done enough to earn a permanent top-six spot and based on the distribution of ice time (17:46 for Trocheck vs 15:30 for Bjugstad) it appears he has cemented his place. However, Bjugstad was a first round pick back in 2010, and at 6’6”, he could be another example of a big forward needing extra time to put it all together. In all likelihood the excess talent up front will end up affecting players individually as changes to line combinations always leaves someone in a less favorable spot.
Recently acquired Jared McCann has become quite the wildcard in his new environment. His rookie year in Vancouver was subpar, but he just turned 20 years old, and was a first-round pick in 2014. A top-six role is highly unlikely anytime soon but a third-line role is not out of the question if he shifts to the wing. In fact, he could even spend time down in the AHL next year given some of the alternatives pushing for playing time.
The Panthers’s blueline is topped by Aaron Ekblad, a franchise defenseman in the making whose fantasy appeal is a huge question mark. His offensive production has been excellent for a rearguard of his age but his peripheral numbers have not been as good as expected thus far. Of course, players evolve over time, but we have seen enough from Ekblad to begin questioning his potency as an all-around fantasy contributor.
Brian Campbell just completed the final year of his mammoth contract and is obviously going to be taking a pay cut this summer. The question is whether or not he will return to Florida. His puck-moving ability and veteran presence have been assets on this team mainly composed of young players. Furthermore, the team has made a point of retaining veterans including Shawn Thornton who otherwise might not be in the NHL next year. Should Campbell leave, the Panthers will likely be in the market for a replacement, with Yandle being a candidate.
Depending on how the Campbell situation plays out, a dark horse to benefit is Dmitry Kulikov who is already a strong contributor in peripheral categories. He has mostly been an offensive disappointment but he managed to put up 28 points in 58 game back in 2012.
Meanwhile, the departure of Erik Gudbranson will enable Alex Petrovic to play a greater role moving forward. Petrovic already showed great multi-category potential as well as some offensive upside which would further boost his value if he can turn more minutes into extra points.
In goal, Roberto Luongo has once again become a high-end fantasy goalie as the Panthers have become a strong team. Even if the team takes a step back next year he should be a lock for 30 wins and a save percentage pushing .920.
The backup position is far more interesting as Al Montoya is headed for free agency after a great year. Should he find himself on a new club the Panthers have nobody in their system ready for a promotion to the NHL. Therefore, the logical move would be to sign another unrestricted free agent to play behind Luongo.
Even with the team’s success there is still plenty of room for prospects to be promoted. The undersized duo of Kyle Rau and Rocco Grimaldi will be in the mix to earn bottom-six roles, although neither holds much fantasy value. Lawson Crouse, drafted 11th overall last summer, has more potential, and could be a multi-category stud out of the gate should he make the squad.
The loss of Gudbranson and the possible retirement of Willie Mitchell opens up some spots on defense. Mike Matheson is the obvious choice to be promoted as he has shown he is NHL-ready. He averaged over 21 minutes in five playoff appearances although expectations for production should be kept low initially given he had just 20 points in 54 contests down in the AHL.
Perhaps more appealing for one-year leagues is recently-signed Linus Hultstrom, an undersized offensive defenseman with impressive point totals the last two years in Sweden. If he spends the year in Florida he should be put in a position to take advantage of his offensive gifts.
Follow me on Twitter @DH_EricDaoust.
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