NHL injury/news updates: Eichel, Kucherov, MacKinnon, Matthews

During the first week of the 2021-22 NHL season, there are injuries, players trying to recover from injuries, and other bits of news. Let’s round up some of the most noteworthy updates on Jack Eichel, Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, and more.

Report: Sabres don’t want to retain salary in an Eichel trade

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek provided some interesting details about Jack Eichel, John Klingberg, and others.

Both Eichel and Marek noted the Golden Knights and Avalanche at points showing at least some interest in Jack Eichel. Yet, the parameters of a trade set up a wall: the Sabres reportedly don’t want to retain salary in an Eichel trade.

They might be amenable to taking back money in the form of other contracts to make the Eichel contract work, however. Some supplementary thoughts:

  • Most immediately, Vegas has injury worries that would make an-already-cap-challenging Eichel trade tough to even imagine. Could there be room for some creativity, particularly if they moved Eichel onto LTIR?

Two contracts stick out: Evgenii Dadonov ($5M cap hit for two more seasons) and Reilly Smith ($5M, expires after this season). Tough to imagine the Golden Knights pulling off an Eichel trade. That said … they’ve pulled off bold, cap-defying moves before.

[Rink Wrap: catch up on Saturday’s NHL action.]

  • Ultimately, the lack of salary retention might matter most to the Avalanche. That’s because Nathan MacKinnon’s hyper-steal $6.3M cap hit evaporates after 2022-23. Managing everything with Eichel at full freight ($10M through 2025-26) would be difficult with MacKinnon’s raise, alongside big deals for Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen.

That said, there are some deals that could be moved. Some expiring contracts stand out (Andre Burakovsky, $4.9M; Nazem Kadri, $4.5M), at least if you mix in some two-year commitments (Erik Johnson at $6M; J.T. Compher at $3.5M). But would the Avalanche risk that much future flexibility? Sounds like the answer is no, at least without salary retention.

  • To some, this provides added motivation to gripe about the way the Sabres do business. To an extent, that’s fair.

However, at least some people may not consider that, if the Sabres retained salary for Jack Eichel, it would be for the five remaining seasons of his deal. Eventually, they’re hoping to compete; if they’re paying Eichel $1-$2M to compete for someone else, that’s wasted.

Yes, it’s part of doing business. Teams feel the same sting with a costly buyout. But the Sabres balking at salary retention in an Eichel trade isn’t totally out of bounds. At minimum, it should drive the asking price up considerably.

Interesting Stars – Klingberg rumblings

In that same Sportsnet segment, Marek and Friedman also discussed the expiring contract of Stars defenseman John Klingberg.

After watching other defensemen cash in, Marek reports that Klingberg wants a deal that could fall in the eight-year, $62-$66M range. That hypothetical contract would carry a cap hit between $7.75M – $8.25M.

It’s an interesting situation, overall.

On one hand, Klingberg’s raise is a long time coming. He’s been underrated for years, and also underpaid — his current $4.25M cap hit has been in place for seven seasons. That said, Klingberg is 29, and will turn 30 before his next contract begins (Aug. 14).

By a variety of metrics, there are red flags that Klingberg could go from underrated and underpaid to overpaid. Consider his SPAR (standings points above replacement) chart from Evolving Hockey:

Klingberg SPAR EVO NHL injury news trade updates
via Evolving Hockey

No shame in going from great to good, but teams should be picky when handing out max term and big salaries.

Also, even if Klingberg returns to his previous borderline-Norris level, he might run into something Dougie Hamilton experienced. Sometimes, a team just isn’t convinced you’re an $8M-ish defenseman.

  • Last season, Klingberg averaged less time on ice (22:42) than Miro Heiskanen (24:58) and Esa Lindell (23:11).
  • That also happened in 2019-20, with Lindell (23:25) managing a slightly larger gap (Klingberg – 22:10). Klingberg last topped the Stars in ice time in 2018-19, Heiskanen’s rookie season.
  • If the Stars view Klingberg as their third defenseman, that price tag would already be a hurdle. There’s also the larger question of the direction of this team. In the event that they miss the playoffs in 2021-22, would they really want to pay top dollar for Klingberg? Was the Ryan Suter signing already a signal that they’re moving on?

No doubt, if the Stars don’t sign Klingberg, he’d get a lot of attention on the trade and/or free agent markets.

NHL injury/COVID news: Kucherov, Matthews, MacKinnon, and more

  • The Maple Leafs received a mix of good and bad injury news.

The bad news is that Petr Mrazek is expected to miss about two weeks with a groin injury. Toronto will likely roll with a Jack CampbellMichael Hutchinson combo in Mrazek’s absence.

On the bright side, Auston Matthews is slated to make his season debut against the Rangers on Monday. After that, the Maple Leafs face a back-to-back set on Friday and Saturday.

  • Speaking of the Rangers, they placed Kaapo Kakko on injured reserve.
  • Unfortunately, Nathan MacKinnon still tested positive for COVID. The Athletic’s Peter Baugh reports that MacKinnon won’t travel on at least the first portion of Colorado’s upcoming road trip. It’s a three-game trip (at Washington on Tuesday, Florida on Thursday, and Tampa Bay on Saturday). Overall, the Avs play four of their next five games on the road.
  • Nikita Kucherov left Saturday’s OT win with an injury the Lightning said “didn’t look good.” Steven Stamkos said they’re praying Kucherov is OK, according to Joe Smith of The Athletic.

Sometimes a minor-looking exchange can result in an injury:

For even more player news, check out NBC Sports Edge.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers’ young talent is only thing that will make rebuild a success

The New York Rangers underwent some pretty drastic changes this offseason in an effort to turn their ongoing rebuild into a success.

General manager Jeff Gorton was fired and replaced by Chris Drury. Head coach David Quinn, the man hired to usher in the young talent of this rebuilding phase, was replaced by Gerard Gallant. They also made a little bit of a philosophical shift to the roster by targeting toughness — and a lot of it — by bringing in Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Jarred Tinordi, and Patric Nemeth to fill out the bottom of the lineup.

When it comes to the latter point, it is really easy to connect the dots back to that late season game against the Washington Capitals when they had their run-in with Tom Wilson that resulted in Wilson being fined, the Rangers blasting the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and the league fining them $250,000 for said criticism. It was a wild sequence of events.

The Rangers can say the Wilson incident — or the mere presence of Wilson in their division — was not the inspiration for those moves all they want, but it is too much of a coincidence that they decided to take that direction at this point in time.

[Related: NHL Rink Wrap: Begin the Kraken; Tom Wilson vs. Rangers]

They would also not be the first team in the Metropolitan Division to have that sequence of events play out where Wilson angers them, they criticize the league’s inaction, and then try to take matters into their own hands by changing the roster. Heck, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried the exact same thing with the exact same Wilson nemesis (Reaves) a couple of years ago. It is the exact same playbook Wilson pushes teams to follow for some reason.

So with all of that in mind it is kind of fitting that the Rangers open their 2021-22 season by playing Wilson and the Capitals so all of this chaos can play out right from the start.

But for all of the bluster about Reaves’ addition, and all of the changes they made behind the bench and the front office, there is only one thing that is going to make the Rangers’ rebuild a success. And it has absolutely nothing to do with any of those offseason changes.

The success or failure of the Rangers’ rebuild depends entirely on the development of their recent top draft picks and prospects, and them becoming franchise cornerstones.

Without that, everything else is simply window dressing and focus on a particular secondary narrative.

Having established stars in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad certainly helps a rebuild. As does lucking your way into an Adam Fox that only wants to play for your team. But when you get the opportunity to pick in the top-10 (and top-two!) as often as the Rangers have over the past few years you can not miss on them. Because if you get them right, you are probably going to have a Stanley Cup in your future.

So far, the early returns for the Rangers have been less than encouraging. And that might be the most concerning element of the team’s current trajectory.

Between 2017 and 2020 the Rangers had eight first round draft picks, including four picks in the top-10. The early returns so far have been mixed.

[Related: Rangers extend Zibanejad]

The Rangers already jettisoned one of those top-10 picks (Lias Andersson) last year for a second-round draft pick, while another, Vitali Kravtsov, might soon be on his way out the door after he failed to make the opening day roster and did not report to the American Hockey League. He has reportedly been given permission to seek a trade with other clubs. To this point, the Rangers received five goals in 86 man games from those two players. Not great.

The jury is still very much out on the other late first-round picks. Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller have shown flashes of impact potential in the NHL, but are not consistently there yet.

All of that is just part of what makes the most recent top picks, No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, so important.

They are ultimately going to be the players that dictate where this thing goes and if it works.

Kakko is entering what might be a pivotal year in his development and if he is going to become a star player you would want to think it would start to happen this season. He took a significant step forward in a lot of ways last year, becoming one of the Rangers’ best possession drivers and scoring chance creators. It did not always translate into offense, though, or make a noticeable difference in his individual production. Some of that could have been how he was used and the talent he had around him, not to mention the number of minutes he received. He is slated to start Wednesday’s game on the second line next to Panarin and Ryan Strome, which should put him in a position to succeed.

Then there is Lafrenière. After an extremely slow start to his rookie season he started to flash some of the talent and potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick later in the season and finished strong, perhaps setting the stage for a big sophomore year. He is opening Wednesday night on the top line alongside Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Like Kakko, it is an ideal situation for him to thrive in.

If you look at pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the modern era almost all of them have at least one top-two pick on their roster that became a superstar. In some cases, more than one. Those players, if you get them right, are franchise changers and championship building blocks.

So much focus this offseason has been spent on the Rangers’ changes and what they might mean for the culture and attitude around the team’s mindset. But if the potential young impact players do not become actual impact players, none of it is going to matter.

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contender tiers as 2021-22 season begins

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a preseason look at the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.

We put all 32 teams into different tiers based on what the level of expectation should be for this season.

Where does your team sit at the start of the season?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Top Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost a lot this offseason but they still have the same core in place. And that core has been the best team in the league for the past seven years and has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can not count them out from winning a third in a row.

2. Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps the most talented team in the NHL on paper. They have to break through the Second Round, but if they stick with it and trust the talent they will get there. Talent eventually wins.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. The big question will be center depth and if Robin Lehner plays at a Stanley Cup level all season as the No. 1 goalie. Great team with huge expectations and a ton of pressure.

4. Carolina Hurricanes. Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts and they have some questions in goal but they should absolutely be one of the best teams in the league. Their time has arrived.

5. New York Islanders. Here is how this is going to go: They will win 10 games in a row at some point, probably as part of a 15-or 16-game point streak, stumble along for the rest of the season, everybody will question how good they actually are, and then they will shut everybody down in the playoffs and be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Just accept it.

It is possible if some things go right

6. Florida Panthers. This might be the first time this team has entered the season with real expectations. The game-changer here could be Spencer Knight. If he overtakes Sergei Bobrovsky and plays to his potential, this team will be tough to beat.

7. Boston Bruins. The goalies are a question right now (maybe Tuukka Rask comes back?) and the second-line center spot is a concern, but that top line and Charlie McAvoy will take them far.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. They should be in this tier. Whether or not they do anything to validate that preseason belief remains to be seen. At some point they have to actually, you know, do something.

9. Minnesota Wild. They have some questions at center, but Marco Rossi could be a game-changer there. They were one of the most exciting teams in the league last year. That is a sentence that has never been said about the Minnesota Wild.

10. St. Louis Blues. A lot of this depends on if the good version of Jordan Binnington makes an appearance and if the defense is a little better.

11. Washington Capitals. A lot of this depends on if Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov bounce back. Not going to bet against them or this core making one more run.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. They need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be healthy come playoff time and for Tristan Jarry to not self destruct. But like the Capitals, am not going to bet against this core making one more run.

13. Dallas Stars. With a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov they make the playoffs a year ago. They should both be healthy this season.

14. Winnipeg Jets. They gave one of the best goalies in the league a little more help defensively. Combined with their top line forwards this could be an interesting team.

The complete wild cards

15. Philadelphia Flyers. If Carter Hart is good this team will be very tough to beat. If Carter Hart is not good this team will struggle again.

16. New York Rangers. You will hear a lot about their offseason moves but the deciding factor in this team will be the progress and development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterin. The pressure is on. But the upside is immense.

17. Edmonton Oilers. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes and as good as they are they should be in the top tier. But the rest of the team is, quite honestly, not great. That defense and goaltending are problems.

18. Calgary Flames. They are not contenders, they are not a clear lottery team. They just exist in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

The mystery teams

19. Seattle Kraken. They should have good goaltending and play in a weak division. Those two things should keep them in it.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They spent a ton of money this offseason and are getting Jonathan Toews back, but nearly every addition carries some risk and the team itself is still not that great on paper.

21. Montreal Canadiens. They lost a lot from last year’s team, Shea Weber is not going to play, and Carey Price‘s situation is unknown. They also do not get to play in the North Division.

22. New Jersey Devils. They made all of the right moves this offseason and Jack Hughes is ready to become a superstar but they play in the wrong division to make a big jump.

23. Vancouver Canucks. They have a great young core of talent, but can their defensive play be trusted? Or their depth? Feels like a team that should be better.

24. Los Angeles Kings. Do not count them out as a potential playoff team. Great center depth and a weak division could help them arrive a year early.

Likely lottery teams

25. Nashville Predators. They will go as far as Juuse Saros can take them. Losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson from an already flawed team is not going to help.

26. Ottawa Senators. The only concern right now is getting the Brady Tkachuk contract situation resolved. There is talent here, but can you trust ownership to take advantage of it and build something? Probably not.

27. Detroit Red Wings. Losing Jakub Vrana for more than half of the season is a loss they could not afford.

28. San Jose Sharks. An aging core, some bad contracts, the Evander Kane situation, and questionable goaltending is going to make for a long season.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The good news is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale might be real long-term building blocks to offer some real hope for the future.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper they look like the worst team in a tough Metropolitan Division. Elvis Merzlikins might be able to keep them competitive on most nights, and Patrik Laine could bounce back, but there are a lot of questions here.

31. Arizona Coyotes. They are clearly building for the future and trying to stockpile as many draft picks and future assets as they can. This will not be a good team this season.

32. Buffalo Sabres. These fans deserve better than this lousy product being thrown at them every year.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

+2200 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.