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Rangers have more holes to fill in free agency

Agree to terms with defenseman Brendan Smith but need to address center depth when market opens July 1

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The New York Rangers took care of an important offseason task Thursday by announcing they have agreed to terms on a four-year, $17.4 million contract with defenseman Brendan Smith, an average annual value of $4.35 million. 

Smith, who could have become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, had nine points (three goals, six assists) in 51 regular-season games with the Detroit Red Wings and Rangers, and four assists in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games. In 309 NHL games, Smith has 71 points (16 goals, 55 assists). 

Acquired in a trade with the Red Wings on Feb. 28, Smith was a welcome addition to the Rangers lineup. He brought versatility to the back end as a left-handed shot who could play on the right side. He had chemistry with Brady Skjei and played with an edge, an ingredient the Rangers were lacking on defense.

 

[RELATED: Smith, Rangers agree to terms | Top free agent centers]

 

So what's next for the Rangers with NHL free agency starting at noon on July 1?

The Rangers, who have approximately $15.65 million in NHL salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com, might be looking to make a splash in free agency, potentially by signing right-handed defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to play with captain Ryan McDonagh, but they also have to re-sign players and fill holes.

The most glaring need is at center, with Derek Stepan being traded to the Arizona Coyotes last Friday and Oscar Lindberg being selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. Goalie Antti Ranta also left in the Stepan trade for 21-year-old defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft (used on Swedish center Lias Andersson), so the Rangers need a backup who can play 25 games behind Henrik Lundqvist. 

Also pressing are the contracts of center Mika Zibanejad and right wing Jesper Fast, who can each become restricted free agents July 1. 

The key will be how they view their current depth chart, meaning do they think Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes can be their first- and second-line centers?

Video: OTT@NYR, Gm6: Zibanejad breaks in, roofs wrister

"I definitely think the potential is there," coach Alain Vigneault said. "I've been saying all along that Mika, we're scratching the surface. This gives both those guys a great opportunity and I'm hoping that they're going to grab it." 

That could mean the Rangers may be in the market to sign a player to center their third line and who could move up in the lineup if needed. Though J.T. Miller can play center, it appears the Rangers prefer him on the wing.

Three of the top candidates the Rangers could find to replace Stepan in the unrestricted free agent market are Nick Bonino, Martin Hanzal and Sam Gagner, but they have drawn plenty of interest from around the League.

Bonino, 29, a lefty, has won the Stanley Cup twice as the Pittsburgh Penguins third-line center. Granted, he was playing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but he could fill Stepan's role as a versatile two-way center who plays on the power play and the penalty kill.

Video: NSH@PIT, Gm1: Bonino banks goal in off defender

Hanzal, 30, who was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 27, has the same attributes. He's also a lefty and is 6-foot-6. Hayes is 6-foot-5.

Bonino and Hanzal each are strong on faceoffs, especially in the defensive zone. Stepan took the majority of the Rangers' defensive-zone faceoffs.

Gagner, 27, who had 50 points in 81 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, is a righty who specializes on the power play and offensive zone starts. 

Another potential option for the Rangers is San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, 37, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. If the Rangers go that route, the more likely scenario is Thornton becoming their No. 1 center with Zibanejad and Hayes behind him.  

The Rangers could have Zibanejad and Gagner as right-handed shots on separate power-play units next season. They had Zibanejad and Stepan as righties on the power play this season.

Video: CBJ@PHI: Gagner buries scorching one-timer past Mason

Depending on what they have left in cap space, the Rangers could decide the better option on defense is to hope one or more of their prospects, including DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov and Sean Day, prove they're ready to play in the NHL.

"Obviously we've got some other things that we need to do with our lineup," Vigneault said at the 2017 NHL Draft on Friday. "But we've got some cap space and in theory we should have two younger players getting close to being in our lineup."

Considering Vigneault's statement about younger players, it's possible, if even likely at this point, the Rangers will try to fill Lindberg's fourth-line center spot from within. 

The likely candidate is Cristoval Nieves, a 6-foot-3, 219-pound 23-year old lefty who played in one game with the Rangers this season and had 18 points in 40 games with the Hartford Wolfpack in the American Hockey League.

The Rangers also have Matt Puempel, who signed a one-year contract extension on June 14 as another option at center.

New York had to include Raanta in the trade with Arizona to get it done. It left them exposed in goal behind Lundqvist, but Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton didn't mind moving Raanta because of the wealth of backup goalies available on the free agent market.

The options include Jonathan Bernier, Chad Johnson, Brian Elliott and Anders Nilsson

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