For all the turnover and all the mixing and matching the Rangers’ forward group has endured over the past few seasons, there have hardly been any questions regarding the top four spots on defense.
K’Andre Miller’s status as a restricted free agent has provoked an uncertainty on the back end the Rangers haven’t had to worry about since the 2018 first-round pick made his NHL debut in 2020.
Even if Miller re-signs with the Rangers ahead of the 2023-24 season — and there hasn’t been any strong evidence to the contrary — the details of the contract will have a ripple effect on the rest of the defensive corps.
Whether it’s a one-, two- or three-year deal, in the $3 million-$4 million range, or an offer sheet from another club, the futures of some other members of the Rangers’ defense will be impacted.
President and general manager Chris Drury will have to take all of it into consideration while structuring a deal for Miller, who has played an integral role from the moment he pulled on the red, white and blue jersey.
If Miller were to sign for, say, two years, it would bring the 6-foot-5 blueliner two seasons away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Depending on how much the contract is worth and what other moves are made to free up cap space, there might not be much left over to keep fellow defenseman Ryan Lindgren when he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of next season.
Lindgren, who won the Players’ Player award as voted by his teammates this season, can only be described as the heartbeat of the Rangers.
There should be a priority tag hanging on his next contract, simply due to what has been seen from the team when Lindgren isn’t on the ice.
There’s also the fact that Adam Fox, the 2021 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman, is at his best next to Lindgren.
The two have skated together in 183 of 220 games over the past three seasons. Lindgren will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights next summer, coming off the three year, $9 million deal Drury gave him in May 2021.
With Fox entering the second season of a seven-year deal at $9.5 million per and Jacob Trouba still with three seasons left on a seven-year contract that carries a cap hit of $8 million (both with modified no-trade clauses or no-move clauses), the Rangers may not be able to sign Miller to the long-term deal every NHLer looks for sooner or later.
If Miller were to recognize that and be open to signing an offer sheet the Rangers couldn’t match this season, the team would suddenly be down a defenseman who has averaged 21:14 of ice time over his tenure.
Offer sheets are rare, but Miller is 23 years old and a still-developing talent who appears to have a high ceiling on both sides of the puck.
If Miller were to sign an offer sheet, the Rangers would have seven days to match or else they’d lose the Minnesota native and receive the appropriate draft compensation.
Miller and Trouba have had their moments together, both good and bad.
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They even surpassed Lindgren-Fox as the Rangers’ shutdown duo at one point during the 2021-22 season.
Having skated together in 191 of 220 games over the past three seasons, Miller and Trouba represent the necessary continuity most of the Rangers lineup hasn’t had.
The uncertainty on the longevity of the left side, with Miller and Lindgren, makes Zac Jones all the more important.
It’ll be interesting to see how the next head coach perceives the 22-year-old, who played just 16 NHL games this past season and was largely relegated to AHL Hartford.
Former head coach Gerard Gallant preferred a big-bodied defenseman on the third pair next to Braden Schneider, as opposed to a puck-mover like Jones.
That’s how the Rangers ended up with Niko Mikkola as their No. 6 and Ben Harpur as their No. 7.
Depending on how things shake out with Miller and Lindgren, keeping Jones in the left-side pipeline may be crucial down the road.
Mikkola would certainly become a more obtainable option if Miller does somehow get away.
With Miller and Alexis Lafreniere to pay this summer, however, it would be a tight squeeze otherwise.
Not only did Mikkola end up fitting in well on the third pair, but the towering Finn more than held his own in a top-four role when Lindgren was injured at the end of the season.
Coming off the one-year, $1.9 million deal the Blues signed him to in July, Mikkola could probably command more money on the open market than what the Rangers can afford to give him under their current circumstances.
Either way, the fate of the Rangers’ defense starts with Miller’s next contract.
Whether Miller stays with the Blueshirts or signs elsewhere, everything will become much clearer once he puts a pen to paper.