Hartnett: Rangers will regret letting Jesper Fast walk

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Great teams are built on a combination of intelligent personnel decisions and luck.
Sometimes, a hockey club is gifted with extraordinary luck.

That was the case for the Rangers when Artemi Panarin entered free agency and had his heart set on playing at Madison Square Garden. That was also the case when the ping pong balls went the Blueshirts’ way in consecutive draft lotteries, allowing the Rangers to select Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere.

For 15 years, the Rangers rode the luck of a seventh-round pick turning into the greatest-performing goaltender of his generation. The fact that Henrik Lundqvist’s magnificent postseason efforts did not produce a Stanley Cup championship banner to hang from The Garden rafters is proof that it takes a lot more than luck.

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton deserves praise for the acquisitions of Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo, and other productive pieces who have flourished. He’s gotten plenty of the big calls right. But for the Rangers to realize their ultimate Stanley Cup ambitions during the next half-decade, Gorton must assemble a supporting cast that compliments the likes of Panarin, Zibanejad, Fox, Lafreniere, and Igor Shesterkin.

On Saturday, the Rangers allowed a terrific complimentary piece in Jesper Fast to walk out The Garden door. Such was Fast’s respect inside the Rangers’ dressing room that teammates voted him as the Players’ Player Award recipient for a franchise-record five consecutive seasons.

While Fast wasn’t quite an ideal top-six scoring wing, his array positive qualities added up to a lot. He excelled at driving offense and making smart plays on both ends of the rink. His industrious style of play energized the Rangers and was key to their penalty-killing efforts.

The Metropolitan Division rival Carolina Hurricanes signed Fast to a three-year, $6 million deal, and they will be rewarded for their shrewd business. While it’s a good rule of thumb not to overpay third-line talents, Fast should still be wearing a Rangers uniform today.

Perhaps, the Rangers weren’t comfortable paying Fast the extra dough and three-year term needed to keep him in New York. Yet, Gorton and company had no problem signing off on adding declining 33-year-old defenseman Jack Johnson to the mix on a one-year, $1.15 million deal.

You would think that the Rangers would have learned after the Detroit Red Wings freed them from fellow 33-year-old deteriorating blue liner Marc Staal’s remaining one-year, $5.7 million cap hit. Every metric shows that Johnson has been horrendous over a three-year stretch, and actually, no defenseman has a lower goals above replacement rating over that period than Johnson.

An enthusiastic thumbs up from Jacques Martin and John Davidson isn’t going to turn back the clock and salvage Johnson into anything useful. That said, a one-year contract isn’t a backbreaker – but it feels like wasted cap space that could have gone to keeping a proven commodity around in Fast.

Losing Fast feels like a reminder of the Rangers’ costly decision to allow an underappreciated Anton Stralman to walk in 2014. While I don’t quite see the departure of Fast causing similarly deep ramifications, he’s going to be difficult to replace, and, perhaps, a bit harder to replace than the Rangers’ front office realizes.

Salary cap management is a delicate dance, and a flat cap 2020-21 season makes a general manager’s work all the more stressful. Yet, there should have been a way to keep Fast around. Abstaining from the luxury of bringing in a defensive veteran in Johnson and sending not quite reliable defenseman, and not quite-useful forward Brendan Smith, to the minors could have helped that cause. If there was a way to clear Staal’s salary by packaging him with a pick to Detroit for future considerations, maybe a taker could have been found for Smith’s bloated $4.35 million cap hit.

When Fast is skating around in a Canes uniform and the Rangers get a first-hand look at what they’re missing, they’ll realize they allowed a valuable piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle to slip out of their grasp.

Follow Sean Hartnett on Twitter: @HartnettHockey

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