Offseason moves are not made in a vacuum. Every trade, signing and draft pick is affected by what the team has already done and what they plan to do. For instance, if the Rangers sign Brad Richards, they probably won’t try to trade for an elite scorer, and vice versa.
So at this point, it is difficult to decide if either or both of impending unrestricted free agents Vaclav Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko should be brought back to the Rangers for another season. Salary cap room is going to be a big issue this summer – restricted free agents Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, Brian Boyle and Michael Sauer are all due for raises – especially if the club is successful in acquiring a big ticket forward on the open market. While neither of the two veterans is bound to command a large salary, the organization must also take into account that signing older players may run counter to the youth movement the organization has embarked on. Roster spots and ice time gained by Prospal and Fedotenko are also a roster spots and ice time lost by young, promising hockey players.
That said, the Rangers could still benefit from a veteran presence in the dressing room. The oldest defenseman under contract for the 2011-12 season (aside from the banished Wade Redden) is 27 year old Dan Girardi. The forwards are not that much older; Chris Drury and Sean Avery are the only forwards over 30 signed through next season, and even they may not be with the team for the season opener.
So although the Rangers are looking to go younger, they could still benefit from having some experience in the locker room, especially if they want to transition from a borderline playoff team to a Stanley Cup contender. It would be best to get this veteran from within, as opposed to hunting for one in free agency. John Tortorella likes “his” players, and both Prospal and Fedotenko are well liked and trusted by the Rangers coach. Throughout the season they played in crucial spots and were successful more often than not. They also know the system, which is the basis for the success of the Rangers, a team without an abundance of talent. Locking up two roster spots and 30 minutes of ice time per night with older players could impede the growth of this team, but, if the situation allows, one of the two should be brought back.
So the question becomes: Who stays and who goes?
The thing that jumps out about Prospal is that even while playing at age 36 on a bum knee, the man is a point getting machine. In 104 games with the Rangers over the last two seasons, he recorded 81 points. That’s a better ratio than any Rangers forward besides Marian Gaborik. He is always around the net and in the dirty areas of the ice, and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Scoring is a huge issue for this team, and he can contribute significantly in that area.
Prospal also sets a great example for young players to follow. He shows great enthusiasm, perseverance, and work ethic.
When everybody believed, including his coach, that he would likely never return from a damaging knee injury, he worked hard to rehabilitate the knee and returned earlier than anybody could have imagined. Coming in mid-season didn’t stop him from having great success either and he had an excellent end to the season. His joy for playing the game is also readily apparent. What Rangers fan doesn’t love to see him celebrate goals with his mouth agape in utter ecstasy? Needless to say, this attitude rubs off on the other players as well, and can do wonders for their development.
Health is very important for any hockey player, but especially so for one playing for John Tortorella. The Rangers play a grueling system that includes blocking shots, finishing checks and relentless fore-checking. Even the most physically fit of Rangers seemed to wear down towards the end of the regular season. It is questionable, at best, if Prospal can make it through a full 82 game season without getting worn out. Remember, he only had to play 29 games this year. Even in those games, he looked slow and at times struggled to keep up. It will be even more challenging for him to be successful over the course of a long season, and it will not be surprising if he sustains a significant injury during that time.
He may also cost more for the Rangers to retain. Prospal earned $2.48 million last season, including bonuses, while Fedotenko commanded just $1 million. Obviously the landscape has changed since last summer, but it is fair to assume that Prospal will cost slightly more than Fedotenko, especially after he recorded almost as many points in half as many games. If the Rangers want to bring in significant talent from outside the organization, they may need to hold on to that extra cap space.
At this point, Ruslan Fedotenko is a better fit in the Tortorella system than Prospal. He is younger, quicker and more physically fit. He also plays a more physical game than and can be counted on to fore-check effectively, throw hard hits and block shots. As a grinder and a role player, Fedotenko fits in perfectly with the identity of this team. He also spent over a minute per game killing penalties, and being able to perform on special teams is a crucial skill for any player.
Fedotenko has also developed a unique chemistry with fellow 3rd lines Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust. His two line-mates combined for 7 assists on his 10 goals, and that was the group’s least important contribution.
They were the best Rangers unit at fore-checking and keeping the puck deep. Tortorella had so much confidence in this line that he drew criticism for using the line too often and in situations where more offense was needed. Whether the coach made good personnel decisions is a different discussion; the relevant point is that Fedotenko is part of a line that is plays a very effective two-way game and embodies the Rangers system.
Here is an easy question: What are the Rangers’ two biggest weaknesses? The answer: scoring and scoring. Unfortunately for Fedotenko, that is also his biggest weakness. He set career lows with 10 goals and 25 assists last season, his second straight season on the decline. It is fair to assume that he won’t contribute much by the way of offense next season either and that will hurt his value. The Rangers seem to have an endless supply of “muckers and grinders” who can fill third line spots. The team’s biggest needs are goal-scorers and point-getters, and a healthy Prospal is far superior to Fedotenko in those categories.
The choice between an offensive forward and a defensive forward would be a no-brainer for the Rangers. Prospal is a better scorer and leader than Fedotenko, and fills a significant need for the club. However, it is a big risk to sign him because he may end up being ineffective, or even missing games, for a large portion of the season. However, the one thing the Rangers do not lack is depth, and if Prospal goes down they will have someone to take his place. While that replacement will likely not have the same scoring prowess as Prospal, the Rangers will at least have had a scorer for part of the season. If they sign Fedotenko, they get a full season of someone who cannot score much at all. Therefore, at the right price, the Rangers should sign Prospal up for a third season on Broadway. He should not command anything upwards of $2 million because of the risk factor associated with him. If he demands more money, the Rangers should turn to Fedotenko instead. But as a first choice, Vaclav Prospal is the right man for the job.
R.I.P. Derek Boogaard