By William McInerney
Antti Raanta has been an excellent backup for the New York Rangers since the trade of Cam Talbot two years ago. Last year he played 25 games and had a .919 save percentage, while he has a .921 save percentage in 26 games this season. Yes, Raanta outperformed Talbot last year, and although it was a smaller sample size, he’s shown the past two weeks (plus the run where Hank Lundqvist wasn’t playing in December) that he can handle a starter's workload without struggling to maintain his level of play.
I’ve always said Raanta has the talent to be a starting goalie, and he’s proven it the past two years. Coupling that with the fact he’s only 27, there has been a lot of concern Raanta will get claimed by Las Vegas in the expansion draft. While I understand the concern, I don’t believe it’s going to happen.
One reason is the number of goalies who will be available in the draft.
For example, Joonas Korpisalo from the Blue Jackets is eligible for the draft with this being his third season in a North American professional league (he only played three games his first year, like Brady Skjei, but he played them under contract while Skjei played them under an ATO, which is why that year counts for Korpisalo under the expansion draft rules but not for Skjei). Anton Forsberg is also eligible, but Korpisalo is three years younger and has claimed the backup job from Forsberg. Korpisalo projects as a very good starter, and he could be an attractive option to Las Vegas as he is six years younger than Raanta.
Additionally, one of Michael Hutchinson or Connor Hellebuyck will be available from the Jets (Hellebuyck will be an RFA, but Pavelec will be a UFA, and the Jets must expose a goalie who is either under contract or an RFA, thus Hellebuyck or Hutchinson must be exposed). Both have struggled this year, but both are also younger than Raanta and have a very high ceiling. In addition, Malcolm Subban from Boston will be available, as Tuukka Rask has a no-movement clause and is frankly too good for the Bruins to lose in the expansion draft anyway. Although Subban has developed somewhat slowly, he is still young for a goalie, has a super high ceiling, and part of the reason for his slow development has been injuries.
A final thing these goalies have in common is the Rangers have more talent from their other players for Vegas to pick from than any of these teams do. An important thing to remember when projecting the expansion draft is Vegas is building a team, not just picking the best player from every team. They need to find players that can fill in anywhere; picking too heavily at one position is not a good strategy.
This is an interesting offseason for goalies as well, as Marc-Andre Fleury, Ben Bishop, and Ryan Miller will all be available in free agency.
Bishop is a very talented goalie, Fleury is somewhat overrated but still a solid starter, and Miller is forgotten because of his age and the fact the Canucks haven’t been that good, but he has shown this year he can play at a solid level behind a defense that is frankly not very good. Miller is the guy they should go after, as he’s at an age where he could sign a one- or two-year deal and be willing to split time with whichever goalie they pick in the expansion draft. Plus, Semyon Varlamov should be available in the expansion draft, and the Avalanche could send picks to Vegas to pick him so they can clear a spot for Pickard, as they feel he’s their starter of the future.
All of this leads me to believe the Golden Knights will try and limit the goalies they select in the expansion draft, as there are other good options to be had in free agency.
The Rangers will have other talent available in the expansion draft, albeit mostly at forward, not at defense. Assuming the Rangers go with a 7-3-1 protection scheme (let’s be honest, the Blueshirts don’t have more than three defensemen worth protection), the defensemen the Rangers will protect will most likely be Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi/Nick Holden (Girardi must be protected unless he waives his NMC or is bought out, although I would bet one of those two happens). Note that Skjei is ineligible to be picked as he will still be in his second year of professional hockey, technically. Kevin Klein will be unprotected, and although I believe Vegas will pick him, the Rangers will have to make it worth their while (more on that later).
At forward, the protection spots in no order will most likely be Rick Nash (NMC), Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and JT Miller (reminder that Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey are both not eligible to be picked). That leaves Vegas with an intriguing option in Michael Grabner, who has 27 goals, can kill penalties, and is probably more talented than anyone who will be exposed by Winnipeg, Boston or Columbus. I don’t believe picking him is the best choice Vegas can make, however.
Vegas is building its roster from scratch, and need to find 23 NHL-level players, as well as prospects to build a system up. The prospects are frankly more important as they will probably not have the talent to compete next year. Thus a 29-year-old having his best season since 2010-11 is not the best use of their pick.
Vegas can agree to select a specific player as part of a trade with a team. The Rangers have around $11 million in cap space next year, but will need to resign Zibanejad, as well as improving the defensive core, and $11 million may not be enough to do that, especially if the Rangers want to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, as all signs indicate they do.
While that cap space could be freed by not re-signing Oscar Lindberg or Jesper Fast, it would still be a very small margin, and the cap number I gave for Shattenkirk is a very hopeful number. The Rangers have several bad contracts, specifically Girardi, Staal, Klein and Nash (who is underrated by fans, but not worth his $7.8 million cap hit).
In an ideal world, the Rangers would get Girardi to waive his NMC to be put up for the draft (not that difficult to do, as they could explain to him if he doesn’t agree, they will buy him out and nobody good will want him, so he can play for a bad team for a lot of money or a bad team for not a lot of money). The Rangers then need to get Vegas to agree to take him (will be very hard to do and probably cost some solid picks, but could be worth it to get rid of his cap hit). If Vegas doesn’t do that, the Rangers don’t have the same leverage to get Nash or Staal to waive their NMCs, as neither of them are at risk of being bought out (Girardi will probably be bought out if he isn’t taken by Vegas, and you don’t want two buyout hits on your cap figure, especially considering how high the buyout hits will be).
That leaves Klein as the guy to be taken in the draft, which would free up about $3 million. While you would like to free up more money than that, trading a few players will help the Rangers. But Vegas can benefit from adding picks to select a certain player the Rangers want to move.
Although the Rangers may have the ability to clear some cap space this offseason, the best opportunity to do that would seem to come from the expansion draft. Vegas would benefit by getting multiple draft picks it can use to build its farm system, and can still get very good goalies from other teams in the expansion draft, as well as through free agency. These factors all combine to mean the Rangers will not lose Raanta in the expansion draft, as there are other options for Vegas to select at goalie, and better ways they can use their pick for the Rangers to get multiple useful picks.