Nikolai Zherdev has been the Rangers' best forward in 08-09. So far he has 11 goals and 20 assists for a total of 31 points in 35 games. This is a good thing for the Rangers, right? Right now it is.
Zherdev is set to be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. At age 24, he has a bright future and could be the face of the New York Rangers organization for years to come - that is, if they can afford him.
Currently, the Rangers have about $41 million tied up in 10 players for the 2009-10 season. Brandon Dubinsky, Zherdev, Lauri Korpikoski, Fred Sjostrom, Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan will all be restricted free agents. Colton Orr, Paul Mara, and Steve Valiquette will be unrestricted free agents. Assuming the cap stays at around $56 million (which is no guarantee in this economy), the Rangers have $15 million to sign these 10 players - as well as fill the spots that will be left when Dan Fritsche and Dimitri Kalinin leave town.
If Zherdev continues to produce points at this pace, he'll likely command a substantial salary increase from the $2.5 million he makes this year. Rangers fans will tell you that it is absolutely necessary to lock this guy up - but Glen Sather has to have considered the alternative: letting Zherdev walk for compensation.
As a Rangers fan, I want to see #13 in Rangers blue for the next several years. However, I also know that our farm system has been depleted from the death of star forward Alexei Cherepanov and the graduation of contributing players Marc Staal, Nigel Dawes, Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan, and Lauri Korpikoski.
If Zherdev were to be signed to an offer sheet this summer, you have to believe the salary would be least $5.3 million per year - which if unmatched, would yield the Rangers two 1st round draft choices, one 2nd rounder, and a 3rd rounder. And if it's over $6.54 million? That's four (four!) 1st rounders.
Anybody who has followed the Rangers over the past 15 years can tell you an obvious truth: draft picks are never a certainty. But for a team that went from #8 in the 07-08 Hockey's Future organizational rankings to the 20's this season, bolstering the farm has to be a consideration. Add in the cap hell Sather is about to face and it becomes more than that.
If you thought the Rangers needed to shed cap to acquire Mats Sundin, just wait until what they're going to have to do this summer to keep one of their key pieces in place.