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The state of the Rangers: Gorton faces a crossroad this offseason

Pat Rice

alain vigneault on bench 12-15

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

The Rangers season came to a disappointing close, falling in the first round to the Pittsburgh Penguin in just five games. This is the earliest they were eliminated since 2011.  The bad part is they were completely outclassed, losing by a combined score of 11-3 in the last two games, 19-6 in their four losses, and 21-10 for the series.

Pittsburgh had their way on the special team units, scoring on 8 of 21 power plays for a 38% success rate, while the Rangers were 2 of 19, just over 10%.

The Penguins were the better team.  They had energy and execution, while the Rangers didn’t.  This did not come as a surprise because Pittsburgh played very good hockey the second half of the season, while the Rangers have been inconsistent since Thanksgiving.  The series was a combination of losing to a better team and the Rangers tank being empty. 

Not to take away from the Penguins dominance, but the Rangers were running on fumes.  They have advanced well into the playoffs the last two years and three of the last four.  Not only that, many of their series went to the seven game maximum.  It is something that takes a lot out of a team, both mentally and physically.  I don’t know how much of a factor it was, but it was part of the equation.

Lack of star players

derek stepan and chris kreider 11-23

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

As for the Rangers themselves, they could be at a crossroads.  Many say their window of winning a Stanley Cup is closing and it may well be.

Recently, it was said you can’t win the Cup when your best player is the goalie, meaning Henrik Lunqvist and the Rangers, which may be right.  Lundqvist is the best player on the Rangers and the only player who would have a grade of A.

The Rangers have many players who are B and B plus; guys one would want on their team, but not the elite players you need to win the Cup.   In contrast, the Chicago Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith: the best players on the team and all elite players.  Just look at Pittsburgh and you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as their best players – all three among the best at their positions.

Rangers do not have the stars a team like Chicago or Pittsburgh has.  A few other teams can be added to that list, such as Washington with Ovechkin and Backstrom, Dallas with Benn, Seguin and Spezza, St. Louis with Tarasenko, and San Jose with Pavelski, Burns and Thornton.  The best players on the Rangers who aren’t goalies are probably Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, and Rick Nash – with McDonagh being the best.  All are very good, but seemingly not among the elite level.

One position to look at is center.  Look at Chicago, winners of three Cups, and you have Toews.  Boston won a Cup five years ago with Patrice Bergeron, while Los Angeles has two Cups with Anze Kopitar.  With leading contenders around the league, Anaheim has Ryan Getzlaff and Ryan Kesler, San Jose has Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton, Dallas has Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, Pittsburg has Malkin and Crosby, Washington has Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tampa Bay has the injured Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, and the Islanders have John Taveras.

The Rangers have Stepan and Derrick Brassard, both good players, but not on the level of those just mentioned.  This is not a criticism of the Ranger players, just a comparison and there are probably twenty centers better than either of them.  Look at Ranger history and you immediately think of Mark Messier and Jean Ratelle.  Walt Tkaczuk, while not a superstar, was also very good.  Do the Rangers currently have a center on the level of Messier and Ratelle?

Now look at the defensemen.  McDonough is very good and every team would like to have him, but he has not been able to replicate the success he saw in the 2013-14 season. Guys like Keith, Letang, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, PK Subban, and Shea Weber come to mind as being consistently great performers.  Since 2010, Chicago with Keith, Los Angeles with Doughty, and Boston with Zdeno Chara, are the only three teams to win the Cup.

Where do the Rangers go from here?

keith yandle shooting 12-6

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

They were very inconsistent the last two thirds of the season.  The fast start made their season look better than it was.  All one has to do is see how they fared since Thanksgiving Day.  If you go by the last 60 games of each team, the Rangers squeak into the playoffs as the eighth seed with 67 points; one point ahead of Boston, two points ahead of Carolina, four points ahead of Buffalo, six ahead of the Devils, and seven points ahead of Columbus.  Compare that to the Islanders, the fourth place team in the division, with 75 points, eight ahead of the Rangers.

Some think the Rangers got old quickly and there is some truth to that.  The long runs in the playoffs may contribute to this.

Their trading away high draft picks for instant success is eventually coming back to bite them.  They are without picks in the first two rounds this year; the first round for Keith Yandle and the second for Eric Staal.  Both players are free agents who may go elsewhere come July 1.  If that happens, they gave away those picks and a #2 in 2017, plus one of last year’s third round picks, C Aleksi Saarela.  Add in a 2nd round pick last year went to Arizona and Anthony Duclair, who had a good rookie season for the Coyotes.

In addition, they haven’t had a #1 since 2012, courtesy of the Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash trades.  Don’t forget a big victim of the cap was Carl Hagelin, who was traded to Anaheim to move up and take Ryan Gropp, as well as getting Emerson Etem, who is now playing for Vancouver.  A bonus in the Nash deal, by the way, was receiving a third round pick in 2013, which turned out to be Pavel Buchnevich.

There is a need to acquire draft picks, but that won’t be easy.  Rick Nash may be shopped around, but he has a contract of nearly eight million per year and will be 32 when next season begins.  Dan Girardi and Marc Staal come to mind, but they have large contracts running the next few years and are coming off down seasons, which will make other teams hesitant. Staal probably has some trade value, but Girardi would be so tough to move. Kevin Klein may be a logical move because his salary doesn’t scare other teams, but he was one of the top defenders and he has a very affordable cap hit, so that’s not a move you necessarily want to make. Other players are expendable and we will have to see what happens.

No article on where the future of the Rangers is complete without mentioning Henrik Lundqvist.  He has been their biggest star over the last ten years, but he looked human in the series with Pittsburgh.  To be fair, he had no help, as most of the team did not play well.  He has a large salary, but he isn’t the reason they have cap trouble.  I remember former NHL coach and GM Doug MacLean said the big stars don’t hurt the cap, it’s the players a level of two below them who consume the cap.

As bad as the playoffs were, I am not sure it is that bleak, yet.  Some changes are needed, but there are some players in their prime or ready to hit their prime who can help them, such as McDonough, Zuccarello, Stepan, Brassard, JT Miller, Jesper Fast, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, Brady Skjei, and Dylan McIlrath.  If Buchnevich signs, that will help.  While the Hartford farm team isn’t loaded with top prospects, RW Marek Hrivik and D Ryan Graves can help in the future.   Another to look for is the recently signed C Boo Nieves.

Dylan McIlrath and Jesper Fast celebrate 1-25

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

The Rangers had that last “kick at the can” and bowed out quickly.  Changes are needed, but the future isn’t necessarily dark.  The right moves have to be made and they may include some of the players mentioned here.  This will be a big off-season, as the Blueshirts are at a crossroads.

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Posted on April 27, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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