'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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The 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs have shined a spotlight on reliable Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman. Finally, the entire hockey world is taking notice of the extraordinary consistency that Stralman provides for the Blueshirts on a game-to-game basis.
No one has appreciated Stralman's contributions more than Rangers franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "King Henrik" believes Stralman deserves more credit for the ways his fellow countryman positively affects the outcome of games.
"I think he's been so steady ever since he came to New York," Lundqvist said. "He's such a humble and quiet guy, you don't talk that much about him. But you always know what he's going to bring.He sees the game really well. He's a really smart player with and without the puck. So he definitely deserves more credit, I think. He's someone who you can use in a lot of different situations.He can play physical, but he can also, like I said, be extremely smart with the puck. So, you know, obviously (in Game 4) he was in the right place a couple of times. But that's just him playing his game. I think he's meant a lot to this team for a long time now."
In years past, Stralman has flown under the radar. Conventional statistics fail to illustrate his value.
Stralman only contributed 13 points in 81 regular-season games. Through 24 playoff games, Stralman has not scored a goal and has recorded five assists. His quiet efficiency doesn't stand out in comparison to Ryan McDonagh's blossoming all-around game, Dan Girardi's workhorse efforts and Marc Staal's shutdown acumen.
Yet, no Rangers defenseman has been more consistent throughout the entirety of the playoffs, and now the Stanley Cup finals. You have to watch Stralman game after game to truly recognize why he's a necessity to the Blueshirts' cause. Stralman has also become a favorite among the hockey analytics crowd.
He excels when matched up against the toughest assignments in defensive zone situations. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Swede displays outstanding puck control, and smoothly carries the puck up ice. Stralman is a possession monster. He treats the puck as if his life depends on it. How many times do you see him cough up the puck, or commit a careless turnover? When he's on the ice, Stralman has not let the brawny Los Angeles Kings get a sniff of the puck.
When head coach Alain Vigneault took charge of the Rangers last summer, he did not arrive with any preconceived notions about the roster he was inheriting. Vigneault's "clean slate – grab it" motto meant there was an open competition for the four forward lines and three defensive pairings. Nothing was set in stone.
Stralman immediately impressed Vigneault. The 27-year-old was promoted to play alongside Staal on the Rangers' second defensive pairing. Previously, former Rangers head coach John Tortorella relegated Stralman to third-pairing duty.
"Anton plays top minutes," Vigneault said. "He's been real steady managing the puck. He's defended really well. He's really an important player for us."
CAN THE RANGERS HANG ON TO STRALMAN?
If the Rangers are unable to re-sign Stralman before July 1, he will become an unrestricted free agent.
Stralman is earning a salary of $1.8 million in the final year of a two-year, $3.4 million contract. Should the 27-year-old explore free agency, a procession of interested teams will make their pitches. The pool of reliable, prime-aged unrestricted free agent defensemen will be thin. Stralman is expected to command a four-year contract above $4 million in annual average value.
Lundqvist, Vigneault and the Rangers recognize Stralman's importance. Stralman is an expert penalty killer, excellent puck carrier and a highly responsible defensive zone presence. Vigneault has often matched up the Staal-Stralman pairing against opposition top lines throughout the playoffs.
The pairing has continually shined against some of the league's brightest stars. It is certainly in the Rangers' best interest to keep Stralman and Staal together for the long-term – but that won't be an easy task.
Buying out alternate captain Brad Richards should be a straightforward decision for the Blueshirts. Should general manager Glen Sather exercise the organization's final compliance buyout on Richards, the Rangers would stand to trim his $6.67 million cap hit off their payroll.
Even should Richards be bought out, there will be a tremendous squeeze on the Rangers to fit their priorities under a projected 2014 salary cap in the region of $70 to $71.1 million. According to Capgeek.com, the Rangers have $53.9 million committed to 13 players for the 2014-15 season. That figure includes Richards' $6.67 million cap hit.
If Richards is bought out, the Rangers will have roughly between $22.77 to 23.87 million to use toward re-signing key restricted free agents Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, John Moore and unrestricted free agents Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Stralman, Dominic Moore, Raphael Diaz and Dan Carcillo.
In addition, the Rangers will be looking to come to terms on a long-term extension with Staal this summer. All of this puts a tightening strain on New York's cap space.
The Rangers had their chance whether to make Stralman or Girardi their priority earlier this winter. Sather opted to hand Girardi a six-year, $33 million extension just days before the March 5 trade deadline.
Sather will have to get very creative to keep Stralman in the famous blue, red and white sweater of the Rangers beyond the Stanley Cup Final. Considering the tight cap squeeze and Sather's lengthy offseason checklist, losing Stralman might be unavoidable.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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