Philip Shetel stood by his locker Friday morning, laughing and looking as relaxed as he had been in any of his five seasons with the New York Rangers.
How can he be blamed? The 23-year-old center was the team’s leading scorer in January – a total he would add later that night during a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I like to score goals,” Chitel said with a broad smile. “I can not lie”.
Eight count last month gave him 16 goals for the season. Thirteen have come on strong, leaving him one behind Chris Kreider to lead the team.
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When accounting for ice time and usage, Chytil was the Rangers’ most productive scorer. His average of 1.45 goals scored every 60 minutes even on power ranks first on the team, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“In the last few games, he’s started hitting a lot of pucks,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “But it works. The pucks go into the net – and when that happens, you feel very comfortable shooting.”
The 2017 first-round pick was already a career-high two-goal high with 33 games remaining, putting him on track for a career-high 29 goals and 52 points. If he hits those numbers — or comes close to it — the suspended restricted free agent will be setting himself up for a big winning day this summer.
Chytil knows what’s at stake, which is why he maintains that this is not the time for complacency.
“It’s nice that hard work pays off, but nothing (will) stop me,” he said after scoring twice in Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “At the moment I’m happy because it shows he’s going in the right direction. I just come the next day to training and do the same things.”
With the playoffs upon us, Gallant and Rangers must ask themselves how best to capitalize on the burgeoning Czech.
There is a strong case for him playing the team’s leader in total points, Artemi Panarin, who has been looking for a skilled center to connect with since the departure of free agent Ryan Strome. He hasn’t clicked with Vincent Troschek or Mika Zibanejad, but there’s reason to believe he might be with a fast, first-shooter like Chitel at the end of Panarin’s deft passes.
In a relatively small sample size — Chytil and Panarin both scored 84:28 together in five-on-five this season — their streak averages one goal every 14.1 minutes of ice time. In comparison, the rate is once every 23.3 minutes when Panarin plays Zibanejad and once every 31.7 minutes with Troshik.
Taking a bigger chance with Panaryn would send the message that the organization believes Chytil has a better six, alleviating fears he might be stuck in a third-line role if he remains in New York.
But there’s also a valid argument for keeping the 6-foot-2, 204-pounder on the baby line between Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko — a position he thrived in last year’s playoffs and has now scored four goals in his last three games.
Chytil jokes about how the other two couldn’t stray from his streak for so long — “They keep coming back to the green,” he quips, referring to the color of the jersey the third line usually wears — but there’s real affection between three kids.
“They’re great players, they’re skilful, and they’re great people too,” he said. “When we play together, we feel comfortable. We know each other so well. We know where we’re going to be on the ice, we just play with instincts and we play fun. … It’s a great make-up.”
No matter where he lines up and who he plays with, Chytil has gained an expansive role down the stretch. He was already headed in that direction before the All-Star break, losing 15 minutes of time on the ice in seven of the previous eight games. The only thing that might hold him back from key positions in close games is his low win rate of 38.5%.
Assuming Chytil use and production continues to grow, the big question moving forward is what all of that will mean for its next decade.
The Rangers are preparing for a very tight summer. If the salary cap only goes up with the expected $1 million increase, they’re looking for a space of about $16 million to fill eight or nine spots on the list. And if they want to hold their top three RFAs – Chytil, Lafrenière and defenseman K’Andre Miller – expect more than half the cap space needed to hold them.
Lafrenière’s up-and-down season should keep his average annual value reasonable, with signs pointing to a bridge deal similar to what Chytil got at the same age — two years at $2.3 million per season. Miller will likely double down on that, as a league source indicates that an AAV worth $5 million isn’t out of the question. Sure, the Rangers will try to keep him closer to $4 million, but a lot will depend on how the rest of the season plays out.
For the sake of this conversation, if the Rangers set aside $7 million to pay Lafrenière and Miller, how much could they pay Shettle?
The comparison they want to make is Roope Hintz, who signed a three-year, $9.45 million ($3.15 million AAV) contract with the Dallas Stars in 2020. He was the same age as Chytil at the time and is leaving the season in which he has scored 19 goals in 60 games. . But maybe this offer is too low.
A viable company Chytil could argue is Joel Eriksson Ek, who signed an eight-year, $42 million ($5.25 million) contract with the Minnesota Wild in 2021 at the age of 24. Chytil’s current speed, but he is considered a better defensive position.
There’s a wide gap between Hintz’s and Eriksson Ek’s AAVs — more than $2 million — leaving plenty of room for negotiation. This makes the following No. 72 deal a major wild card.
The Rangers better hope they land near Hintz, and even then there will be pressure. If they do it for $4 million a year, on top of the $7 million we already mentioned for Lafrenière and Miller, that will eat up to $11 million out of the $16 million they have to spend. That would leave roughly $5 million to fill the remaining five or six roster spots, limiting their options to entry-level contract prospects and veterans who make around the NHL minimum.
Creating the flexibility to deviate from that plan and pursue impactful additions will not be easy. They’ll have to drop Chytil, Lafrenière, or Miller, or relish the idea of trading either forward Barclay Goodrow ($3.642 million AAV) or defenseman Ryan Lindgren ($3 million). Any other big-money blueshirt either has a complete immobility clause (Panarin, Troshek, Zibanijad, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trueba) or is simply untouchable (Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin).
These results are long shots, with the potential that they will re-sign Chytil and maintain critical center depth.
Whether this is a short-term deal for an arbitration-eligible player looking to step up in 2024 and 2025 or something longer-term with AAV Rangers can afford it. But the more pucks Chytil puts in the net, the stronger he will be this summer.
“If you’re creating chances for yourself, everything comes with that,” he said. “This is my game. This is my style of play. I’m doing my best.”
Vincent Z. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ And follow him on Twitter @employee.