There were no headline-making statements or major revelations that came out of Chris Drury’s end-of-the-season call with New York Rangers’ beat reporters on Wednesday.
That’s just not his style.
The team president and general manager is calculated in what he says and very careful not to reveal much about his offseason plans. As has been his policy since he was promoted to the big chair last year, Drury will not discuss any active contract negotiations, nor will he tip his hand about which players he’s prioritizing.
It’s no secret that difficult choices lie ahead, with eight pending free agents from the Rangers’ regular lineup and less than $12 million in available salary cap space. But rather than directly address the path he’ll take to help this Eastern Conference finalist roster continue its championship progression, the GM spoke in broad terms while praising the effort of everyone involved.
“I couldn’t be proud of what our players and coaches accomplished this season,” he said. “We have a special group in that room with high character, competitive players. It was obvious to me and anyone who knew or watched our team how much these guys cared about each other on and off the ice. Obviously, we’re disappointed we ‘re not playing right now in the finals. We want to build on this experience as an organization and find ways to still be playing hockey.”
BREAKUP DAY, PART 1: Kaapo Kakko, Ryan Strome and more
BREAKUP DAY, PART 2: Igor Shesterkin, Artemi Panarin and more
2C leads the to-do list
Drury did offer a few hints as to what the future might hold, with center at the top of his to-do list.
Andrew Copp, Ryan Strome and Kevin Rooney are each heading toward unrestricted free agency, with limited prospect depth to turn to as potential replacements. Something will have to give, whether that means re-signing players or bringing in new blood.
“It’s a very important position for us and for any team,” Drury said. “Centers are hard to get, they’re hard to keep and they’re so important to the day in and day out life of your team throughout the season. That’s one we’re looking at, we’ve been looking at and we continue to discuss as a group and try to figure out who and when that role is going to be filled.”
The expectation is that he’ll pick one of three options to play on the second line behind No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad — Copp, Strome or other.
Drury gave up three draft picks, including this year’s first-rounder, and prospect Morgan Barron to acquire Copp from the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline. That’s quite the haul for a rental, but multiple people with knowledge of the situation have told lohud.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the Rangers have let it be known they’re interested in bringing him back.
“Big picture, he fit in extremely well,” Drury said. “I think having some relationships with some of the players on the team helped. … He’s a very versatile player that can give you both wings and center. That’s a good thing to have for any lineup, and we’re excited with the job he was able to come in and do. We’ll figure out what’s next here shortly.”
While Copp appears to be a slight favorite, Strome made an emotional plea to stick around during his breakup day interview Monday, saying, “My first choice is still to be a New York Ranger. I think I’ve given them the indication that’s my feeling.”
The 28-year-old has been a staple on the second line with Artemi Panarin for the last three seasons, which Drury said could be a factor in the final decision. But he reiterated that his primary concern is to “put together the best group you can to have the best chance of success for the team as a whole.”
“I’ve been pretty consistent in regards to him,” he said of Strome. “I think I even said similar things about Mika last summer when we were working on his extension. Ryan’s a terrific person and a terrific player. He’s definitely made a home here and we’re excited that he wants to be here. We think the world of him, both on and off the ice.”
No matter which center Drury hones in on, expect an average annual value as close to $5 million as possible. Given the Rangers’ salary cap situation, he simply can’t afford much more than that.
Kaapo Kakko expected back
Following his surprising scratch in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, Kaapo Kakko told reporters that head coach Gerard Gallant had not directly communicated an explanation.
He did have a conversation with Drury, though, which the GM made sure to highlight.
“He and I had a real good discussion before he left (Tuesday),” he said. “Kakko is an all-world player – a young player in this league who’s still evolving. … There’s obviously a lot of belief from me and the staff of what his future holds. I know he’s excited for a good offseason and to come back next year and be ready.”
Drury sounded confident that the No. 2 overall pick from the 2019 NHL Draft, who will be a restricted free agent for the first time this summer, will be back with the team next season.
The threat looms of another team extending Kakko an offer sheet, which would leave the Rangers with the option of either matching or accepting draft-pick compensation. But offer sheets are extremely rare in the NHL, with only two being signed in the last eight offseasons.
As for Gallant’s puzzling decision to bench the talented 21-year-old, Drury backed the coach without commenting on whether he thought it was the right call.
“It’s Turk’s lineup card and I support and trust the decisions he makes,” he said. “He made a lot of great ones this year. I know from what he said to you guys at breakup day and what he said to me is, he was just trying to find a way to win a game and win a road game and put the best lineup he could out there. That’s the decision he made.”
More talk of the kids
Kakko wasn’t the only young forward Drury mentioned as an important part of the Rangers’ future.
He referred to both Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafrenière as taking “big steps” in the playoffs, while addressing the possibility of the latter shifting from the left wing, which is arguably the team’s deepest position, to the right side.
“He found another level in everything – offense, defense, physical play, puck play, you name it,” Drury said of Lafrenière. “I thought he took some big strides. His play will dictate what line he’s on. As you all know, there’s nothing guaranteed, but he’s a heck of a player with a bright future. If he ends up playing on the right in the top six, I think we’ll be a pretty good team.”
Drury was asked about another first-round pick, Vitali Kravtsov, and the role he could play after signing a one-year, $875,000 contract this week.
The 22-year-old refused an assignment to AHL Hartford in October after failing to make the NHL roster, causing his relationship with the organization to further rift. And while the possibility remains that he could be traded this summer, Drury has repeatedly referred to Kravtsov as an option for next year’s team.
“I don’t think we’ve ever wavered from our stance of, he’s an all-world talent,” he said. “He does a lot of things on the ice that a lot of people can’t. His size, his hockey sense is through the roof, as is his skill. So, we’re excited to have him back and be part of the group. Like everyone else, your play dictates where you end up. But we’re certainly glad to have him back in the mix and signed for next year.”
Stars see what it takes
As Drury pointed out, it wasn’t just the young players who benefit from the Rangers’ postseason run.
He believes valuable lessons were learned by his veterans, too.
“We make a big deal about what an experience this was for the kids, and it was,” he said. “But Artemi and Mika and (Chris Kreider) and other players that had been in the playoffs haven’t been in a number of years. Artemi hadn’t been to this level, as hadn’t Mika. So, I think both of them took strides and steps in knowing what it takes and seeing what it takes to get to this deep in the playoffs.”
Zibanejad rebounded from a slow start to lead the team with 24 points (10 goals and 14 assists) in the 20 playoff games.
The 29-year-old center was the player opposing teams seemed to game plan around the most and he responded to the challenge.
“He’s got a tough job,” Drury said. “Every No. 1 center in the league is a tough job, and his is no different. He does a lot for us – PK, PP, faceoffs. Every time he steps on the ice, he’s going against an elite center on the other side in every series.”
It was more of a slog for Panarin, who registered 16 points (six goals and 10 assists), but managed only seven at even strength.
The GM expressed hope that his star winger will use that frustrating experience as fuel to improve his game.
“He knows and sees how hard it is to play in these playoffs and how you have to play,” Drury said. “My sense was he’s extremely motivated already, and even though we’re just starting the offseason, I think he’s excited to come back and get rolling again.”
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.