/Rangers’ cap crunch could create difficult Ryan Strome-Andrew Copp choice

Rangers’ cap crunch could create difficult Ryan Strome-Andrew Copp choice

Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury is not one to negotiate publicly, but it doesn’t take much expertise to read the team’s salary-cap table and realize the biggest decision on his hands.

The Rangers have about $10 million to spend this offseason, give or take. Seven of their players, including all four trade-deadline acquisitions and second-line center Ryan Strome, are about to hit unrestricted free agency. Kaapo Kakko and Julien Gauthier will be restricted free agents, with Gauthier arbitration eligible. Long story short, the math is such that, if both Strome and Andrew Copp plan to sign for their market values, the Rangers will struggle to bring both back in 2022-23.

“Centers are hard to get,” Drury said on a conference call Wednesday morning. “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, continue to discuss as a group, try to figure out who and what that role is gonna be filled.”

In his breakup-day press conference on Monday, Copp — who played on Strome’s wing for most of the season — said he prefers center, though the distinction wouldn’t be a deal-breaker as he approaches free agency. If the Rangers keep him and let Strome walk, though, it figures that Copp would be playing up the middle.

Rangers second-line center Ryan Strome (c.) is about to become an unrestricted free agent.
Rangers second-line center Ryan Strome (c.) is about to become an unrestricted free agent.
Getty Images

The Post’s Larry Brooks has reported that Strome and his camp declined an offer from the Rangers earlier in the season, believed to be in the range of a $5.25 million-$5.5 million cap hit. Strome had nine points in 19 postseason games, struggling through a pelvis injury in the conference final that may require surgery. As of Wednesday morning, Drury said he did not know if surgery would be necessary.

Though he was short on detailing much of his thought process, Drury said that how a potential second center fits with Artemi Panarin will matter in deciding who that will be. Strome, who played alongside Panarin for most of the season and has developed a strong chemistry with the Russian, would seem to be the best fit there.

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“Individually, what the lines are gonna shake out, there’s certainly constant communication with the coaching staff, what they think and what they see, but also big picture, put together the best group they can to have the best chance for the team as a whole,” Drury said.

Both Strome and Copp said Monday the term of a deal will be an important factor for them as they approach negotiations. Strome was quite clear that he wants to remain with the Rangers.

“I’ve been pretty consistent as regards to him and I think I even said similar things about Mika [Zibanejad] last summer when we were working out his extension,” Drury said. “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.”

As for Copp?

“He’s a very versatile player,” Drury said. “Can give you both wings and center. That’s a good thing to have for any lineup. I’m excited with the job he was able to come in and do. We’ll figure out what’s next here in the offseason.”

Andrew Copp (18) is hitting free agency after the Rangers acquired him from the Jets at the trade deadline.
Andrew Copp (18) is hitting free agency after the Rangers acquired him from the Jets at the trade deadline.
Corey Sipkin

There is a less likely possibility that Drury will venture outside the current roster for his second-line center, or will promote Filip Chytil to the role after his impressive offseason. That would free up money to spend elsewhere. Either scenario would be surprising, though Chytil did take an eye-opening step forward.

“Think he made mentally and physically some big strides in the playoffs,” Drury said. “Showed us a different level. We’re excited to have him back in the group.”