Rangers sign Jack Johnson, add depth with former Devil Kevin Rooney


On Day One of the very strange October free agency frenzy, the Rangers were mostly quiet. While they did manage to make a few signings, none were over the top. Instead, they went for experience on the back end and addressed fourth line depth.

It’s even stranger to think that the first player they signed was defenseman Jack Johnson. A proven veteran who Penguins fans couldn’t wait to get rid of, he signed a one-year deal worth $1.15 million. The 33-year old American is only signed for a year. Let’s try to keep perspective.

Even if I’m no fan of Johnson, he will bring experience and a veteran presence to the blueline. He isn’t going to wow you. He will deliver hits and block shots. Hopefully, he won’t struggle mightily at five-on-five. While I’m not a huge metrics person, Johnson has been consistently sub-par at Corsica. For his 14-year career, he’s a 47.0 CF. That includes a 46.7 CF last season for Pittsburgh.

Should we be worried? I don’t know. It’s obviously not who anyone wanted after they moved Marc Staal and bought out Henrik Lundqvist to free up necessary cap space. However, maybe the thinking is that they’re not far along yet. Something Team President John Davidson told New York Post columnist Larry Brooks prior to the big NHL Draft that netted future star Alexis Lafreniere and rugged defenseman Braden Schneider.

Perhaps they see what so many fans don’t. That as nice as it would be to really qualify for the postseason (not the Play In crap), it looks like the organization is realistic about expectations. Of course, they want to make the playoffs next year. But it’ll depend on the continued development of the kids including Lafreniere, who Garden Faithful can’t wait to see. When that happens I don’t know. Sometime in 2021.

While Johnson will sacrifice the body for the cause of the team, this isn’t anything more than a filler for a season. Ditto for Anthony Bitetto, who inked a multi-year, two-way deal for $737,500. That means the former Predator,Wild and Jet will likely be insurance just in case they need a healthy body to recall from Hartford. The 30-year old from Island Park, New York played in a career high 51 games in ’19-20 for Winnipeg, tallying eight assists with 32 penalty minutes.

By inking both Johnson and Bitetto, it looks like the Rangers are saying, ‘This is your chance K’Andre Miller.’ The question being is he ready. Only 20, the former 2018 first round pick only spent two years at Wisconsin. We know he can skate and contribute offensively. It’s the other side of the puck that’ll be a concern. If he needs work, they shouldn’t rush him. He’s so young. It takes time to develop players. Especially with Miller being a converted forward.

The Rangers will also be looking at formed 2016 fourth round pick Tarmo Reunanen. A 22-year old left shooting Finn, who improved the past two years for Luuko-Rauma in the SM-liiga. A different league than the one 2018 first round pick Nils Lundkvist plays in. He’s got a goal and assist for Lulea HF in the Swedish Hockey League. The 20-year old will spend another year overseas before the Rangers make a decision on him. No. Don’t buy into Brooks’ click bait crap about them trading him. Let’s be patient.

Meanwhile, Libor Hajek is being loaned to HC Kometa Brno of the Czech Extraliga. That means they can bring him back for training camp and see if he can make the team following a disappointing ’19-20 that saw him become an afterthought due to Ryan Lindgren. Hopefully, the former Lightning 2016 second round pick figures it out. You don’t want to see a defense featuring Johnson and well respected veteran Brendan Smith on the left side.

If he stays and they do the sensible thing and bridge him for around two years at say $10 million, Tony DeAngelo has been mentioned by Rangers management as a possibility to move to the left side. I’d rather it be him than Adam Fox, who looks like the crown jewel of the defense. The team also re-signed RFA Brandon Crawley.

The other interesting move was reaching agreement with ex-Devil forward Kevin Rooney. He took a two-year, $750,000 average. The 27-year old is a checking center who is strong on the penalty kill. Of the nine points (4-5-9) he recorded, 33.3 percent came on the kill including two shorthanded goals. Rooney took part in 49 contests for the Devils. He was 47.0 percent on face-offs.

Rooney won’t blow you away, but has a good work ethic. The Corsi isn’t good with him coming in at 43.2 last season. However, the Devils used him extensively in the defensive zone. He started 67.7 percent of the time in the D zone. That tells me the Rangers think Rooney can help upgrade the fourth line and penalty kill. Areas that need to improve.

In another one of those ‘who’ signings, they went for a similar multi-year deal with former Predator forward Colin Blackwell. So, who the heck is he? Apparently, another late bloomer like Rooney. If he makes the team, his contract pays him $725,000 on the cap. So, it’s low risk. Maybe by signing these guys, they could become exposed next year for the Seattle Expansion Draft.

Blackwell registered three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 27 games for Nashville. All ten points came at even strength. He wound up plus-seven and won more draws (37-and-29) than lost. He also registered 43 hits and blocked 23 shots. His possession numbers are better. Despite 53.5 percent of zone starts in the defensive zone, he was a 50.6 CF. That’s good.

What does it mean? Who knows. Maybe the undersized 5-9, 190 pound forward is one of those under the radar guys who can go back and forth between Hartford and New York. Or maybe he’s a glue guy who they can plug in if he is successful. We’ll see.

The final move was a bit of a shock as the Rangers decided to ink former Devil goalie Keith Kinkaid to a two-year deal worth an average of $875,000. Basically, the former Devils hero who moved on to Columbus and Montreal, is just insurance for Igor Shesterkin and Alex Georgiev. He will be exposed at next year’s expansion draft.

Kinkaid is a good locker room guy with great character. There’s nothing wrong with that even if it’s for Hartford. What does that mean for Tyler Wall and Adam Huska? Well, Huska is on loan to Zvolen HKm in the Slovak League.

What can we conclude from these signings? Just that the Rangers aren’t going to go nuts which is a good thing. They need a good portion of the leftover money for key restricted free agents DeAngelo, Ryan Strome, Georgiev, Brendan Lemieux and Phil Di Giuseppe, who they qualified due to a good showing in ’19-20.

Even though they are outsiders for Jesper Fast, there should be enough money left to see if he wants to come back. I’d love to see him return if it’s not more than three years for say $3.25 million AAV. That’s up to him. If not, they’ll lose a valuable two-way right wing David Quinn trusts to use at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. Plus Quickie can slide up and down the lineup.

I wonder if they would consider former Blueshirt Michael Grabner on a one-year deal for around $1.5 million. He sure was good while he was here. A superb skater with defensive instincts, breakaway speed and a shorthanded threat. I wouldn’t mind.

The only real disappointment was seeing Alex Wennberg sign with the busy Panthers for a year at $2.25 million. A guy I wouldn’t have minded as a pseudo Strome replacement for cheap. The Panthers have Radko Gudas three years at $2.75 million AAV. They also signed a guy I like in Mark Borowiecki for two years at $2 million per.

Another guy to keep an eye on is Tyler Johnson. As expected, Tampa is trying to trade him. It looks like no one bit because they placed him on waivers. He was due $5 million AAV over the next four years. Yeah. Nobody is taking that contract. But I’ll say this. If they buy him out, someone could get a good player for a more affordable salary. I have always liked him. He can play third line and kill penalties. Johnson can play power play too. The only issue is his size. Maybe that’s why his production has decreased. He’s 30 and still put up 31 points (14-17-31) for the Bolts. But Johnson only went 4-3-7 during their Cup run.

We’ll see what happens. As for the in$anity as Brian would say, is giving Jacob Markstrom six years at $6 million per overkill by the Flames or what. He’ll help them in net, but yikes. And Ottawa paid Matt Murray an AAV of $6.25 million over four years. Good luck. On the same day they signed a thrilled Henrik Lundqvist who couldn’t wait to declare his excited he is to join a division rival and “Win”, the Caps gave the defensively inept Justin Schultz two years at $8 million. Good luck with that.

There’s been a flurry of activity. Maybe I’ll put something up in another post. We’ll wait and see what else happens.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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