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NY Post
New York Post
8 Jul 2023

NextImg:Blake Wheeler is rare Rangers free agency bargain: ‘Wants to win the Cup’

Every year, it appears, important free agents sign up to take less to play in Tampa Bay, who take less to play in Toronto. All but never, it seems, are players willing to do that in order to join the Rangers, no matter how deeply they genuflect upon slipping into the Original Six jersey …

Wayne Gretzky did in 1996. Brendan Shanahan did in 2006. Yes, Artemi Panarin took a little less in 2019, but when the eight-digit number on the bottom line starts with “11,” as in “$11,642,843,” that decision calls for kind of an asterisk.

There has never been a free-agent cycle in which it would have been more important for a substantial free agent to take a discount to come to a city with one of the league’s highest tax rates and cost of living than this one.

Lo and behold, enter Blake Wheeler, a free agent for the first time in his 15-year career following Winnipeg’s buyout of the final season of a five-year contract worth $8.25 million per. The winger — who posted 55 points (16-39) — had multiple offers for multi-year deals.

Instead, Wheeler, who will turn 37 on Aug. 21, took less to come to New York on a one-year, over-35 deal for an $800,000 cap hit plus a potential bonus package of up to $300,000. He came to New York for less because …

“Blake wants to win the Cup, and he believes this is the right spot for that,” agent Matt Keator, who also represents fellow Blueshirts Chris Kreider and Adam Fox, told Slap Shots. “Chris [Drury] took care of his trade deadline work this week. There’s not going to be a better rental.”

That attitude is just what you want, and it is just what the Rangers need.

Blake Wheeler signed a free-agent contract with the Rangers.
NHLI via Getty Images

Incoming head coach Peter Laviolette will have multiple options for the Minnesota native, who could fit in on the right with any of the Blueshirts’ top three centers in Mika Zibanejad, Filip Chytil and Vincent Trocheck. It will fascinating to watch this coach put his spin on things with a veteran group that added a heaping of experience in Wheeler, who was Jacob Trouba’s captain for three years in Winnipeg during a six-year run wearing the “C.” Wheeler’s influence should extend beyond the ice.

Now, listen. The Rangers did not sign the 30-year-old Jaromir Jagr. They did not even sign the 27-year-old Blake Wheeler. We all know that. But there is significant value in this addition that may very well become the most cost-effective signing of this cycle.

When is the last time anyone said that about the Rangers and free agency?

Are the Devils sniffing around John Gibson, the Anaheim goaltender who has informed GM Pat Verbeek he would prefer not to go through another rebuild but at the same time has issued no ultimatum?

Why, yes, sources tell us, that is exactly what New Jersey is doing as they weigh whether the Vitek Vanecek-Akira Schmid tandem can get them to the promised land coming out of a division that features Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin in a league in which Adin Hill’s team won the Cup.

Interests aligned between the Islanders and Scott Mayfield (and his agent Keator) when GM Lou Lamoriello kept the defenseman’s cap hit to $3.5 million while No. 24 came away with a cool $24.5 million over a seven-year contract.

Scott Mayfield
Paul J. Bereswill

Jaro Halak, Brian Elliott, Martin Jones and Thomas Greiss are out there seeking jobs as backups, with Elliott perhaps on his way to Toronto.

Wait a second. The Bruins are projected to have James van Riemsdyk and Pavel Zacha on their second line next season, or was that a run-on typographical error I read somewhere?

Guaranteed to happen: Julien Gauthier leading the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in high-danger scoring chances.

I can’t quite understand where Vlad Tarasenko is going with this.

Slap Shots was told that the 31-year-old winger had a multi-year deal in the $5.5 million per neighborhood set to go with Carolina among four solid offers from clubs in varying stages of contention for up to $6 million per, and not only rejected them all as insufficient but then dismissed agent Paul Theofanous.

Yes, the Rangers deadline acquisition — who was almost criminally under-utilized against the Devils by then-head coach Gerard Gallant — badly wanted to remain in New York, but that was never a realistic possibility. He presumably understood that when not a single offer was extended to him before hitting the open market.

It is not as if Tarasenko indicated that he would play Broadway for an extreme discount on a one-year deal, and why would he? There was — or should not have been — any confusion about the Rangers’ direction.

This was the worst year ever to be on the open market, yet No. 91 seems to be aiming for a grand slam home run even when he’d have been in with a three-RBI, stand-up double with the contending ’Canes.

Offers will still be there for Tarasenko, now represented by CAA’s Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry. Once Ottawa moves Alex DeBrincat, the Senators will likely become a major player. If DeBrincat does not go to the Islanders, expect Lamoriello to jump in if he can shed a cap obligation or two. Carolina won’t drop out.

Vladimir Tarasenko celebrates a playoff goal with the Rangers in April.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Tarasenko is a good player and a good teammate. Maybe he will still come out ahead, but this is probably the strangest free-agent scenario since Michael Nylander’s agent, Mike Gillis, agreed to a deal with the Oilers in 2007 only to have the center renege (apparently because no one else in the family wanted to accompany him in Edmonton) and sign a lesser deal with Washington.

He has recorded 316 goals and 744 points in 976 career games by age 32, but nevertheless why does it seem that Matt Duchene has probably been the NHL’s most disappointing productive player since Pierre Turgeon?