“There’s no doubt we believe in this group,” New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said of his team in February. “But at some point, we have to deliver, you know?”
Just two months later, that point has come and gone for the Blueshirts.
The Rangers were drummed out of the playoffs in five games by a Pittsburgh Penguins team that outskated, outworked and outtalented them. New York’s legendary goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, allowed 10 goals on the final 41 shots he faced, and its own shooters couldn’t solve a pair of backup netminders.
It was a thoroughly demoralizing defeat and one that raises serious questions about next year.
The current core group had a terrific run, winning eight playoff series and making three appearances in the conference final over the past four years before this season’s early ouster. And while they failed to win the Cup, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Management consistently swung for the fences, sacrificing four first-rounders and five seconds along with Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Anthony Duclair and Aleksi Saarela to acquire proven veterans Rick Nash, Marty St. Louis, Keith Yandle and Eric Staal to bolster this club at crunch time.
That willingness to go for it made for some thrilling springs, but it was never quite enough. And now, all that risk taking has left the organization in a tough spot.
The Rangers are the oldest team in the league, and with the system nearly bankrupted by a series of win-now moves, there’s not a lot of youth that can be plugged into the lineup. That’s bad news in a league that’s trending toward younger and faster.
It’s all but inevitable then that this team will take a step back next season. But the Rangers can slow the process by re-tooling their key area of need: the blue line. That means committing to kids like Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath and cutting ties with some of the vets whose lack of speed was exploited mercilessly by the Penguins.
That means it’s the end of the line for failed power-play specialist Dan Boyle. A skate-it-out player in a quick-pass system, the 39-year-old pending unrestricted free agent never was a good fit under Vigneault.
Yandle could be gone as well. The Blueshirts have interest in retaining him after he posted the most assists by a Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch, but he’ll be a hot commodity as a UFA once he hits the market on July 1. He’s likely to get a bigger offer in free agency than the Rangers can afford, unless New York makes another cost-cutting move first involving Dan Girardi or Marc Staal. That right there will be the key to their off-season.
Both players are under contract for the next four years, Girardi at $5.5 million and Staal at $5.7 million. As this season proved, neither is worth that kind of paper now. Ideally, the Rangers would find another team willing to take on the remaining commitment, but that won’t be easy. Each player has a no-movement clause so the two control their fate. And even if the players waived their no-movement clauses, neither would bring market value in return. That option, even with some salary retention, remains preferable to having to buy one or both of them outright.
But if a buyout is the only option, it’s a price worth paying to move forward.
Changes are coming up front as well. Eric Staal won’t be back after a disappointing stretch drive culminated in a pointless playoffs. This year’s deadline acquisition was so ineffective that he’ll be lucky to find a one-year, $1 million-type deal as a UFA this summer. Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg will also move on as free agents. One of those spots could go to top prospect Pavel Buchnevich, whose KHL contract expires next week. Another could go to Adam Tambellini, although he might be better served by spending a second season with AHL Hartford.
The core though is solid and fairly young. Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard are 28. Derek Stepan is 25. Chris Kreider is 24. J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes are 23. It’s not elite, but it’s a group that has some legs and can compete as they try to replenish the system.
There are questions about Vigneault as well. He’s been a big part of this team’s success in recent years, but he deserves his share of the blame for this year’s failures as well. If he does get one more chance to deliver, he’ll likely be on a very short leash.