Unlike past off seasons, the Rangers didn’t wait around to get started. With the team out of the playoffs early, new GM Jeff Gorton took care of one matter by re-signing Antti Raanta to a two-year deal worth a reported $2 million.
After coming over from the Blackhawks last summer, the 26-year old backup goalie had a good first season on Broadway. As a Blueshirt, he went 11-6-2 with a 2.25 goals-against-average with a .919 save percentage and one shutout. The affable Finn was a perfect replacement for Cam Talbot, who moved to Edmonton becoming their number one goalie.
A good team guy with a intriguing personality, Raanta goes from earning $800,000 to $1 million per season. A slight bump in salary for the popular netminder fans took to quickly. After winning his first four decisions, he went through a slump not winning again until Feb. 18. He admitted that his confidence was down but approached the start at Toronto differently, making 35 saves in a 4-2 win. From that point, he was much better winning seven of his last eight starts.
With Henrik Lundqvist struggling in a disappointing five-game first round series loss to the Penguins, Raanta made his first postseason appearance. He replaced an injured Lundqvist in Game One after the first period, stopping 16 of 19 shots to take a 5-2 loss. He also relieved Lundqvist in Games 4 and 5 totaling 18 saves on 19 shots.
With Raanta signed, now Gorton can turn his attention to bigger things next month. He will face important decisions, including on key unrestricted free agent defenseman Keith Yandle, who would like to return. A lot depends on what the organization decides to do with proud veteran blueliners Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. One could be a possible trade candidate while the other a potential buyout. If they retain both, then Rick Nash could be on the block as a salary cap casualty.
There also is the matter of key restricted’s Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes. All are due raises with Miller putting up personal bests with 22 goals and 43 points. Kreider matched his best in goals with 21 and also had 43 points. Hayes struggled in his second year posting 14 goals and 22 assists while failing to record a point in the first three games against the Pens before coach Alain Vigneault scratched him.
Depth forwards Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg can also test the market. Rental Eric Staal will likely leave after failing to have an impact. What will the team decide on Group II free agent Dylan McIlrath? His rookie season was solid getting into 34 games with two goals and two assists while racking up 64 penalty minutes. The issue is Vigneault, who never showed confidence in the big, physical defenseman despite steady play and bringing an edge that the rest of the D lacked. It would be a mistake to get rid of him.
Figure a spot will open for impressive rookie Brady Skjei, whose skating and defense should make him a fixture on the back end for the next decade. McIlrath should be a part of it if the organization is smart. We’ll see.