Image Courtesy of NY Daily News
Breaking down a disappointing playoff less campaign for the Rangers and what possibly could lie ahead
By Chris Yackel
Final Record: 34-39-9
For the first time since the 2009-10 season and only the second time since the 2005-06 season the New York Rangers will not be in the playoffs. What exactly went wrong with this team? The answers if you really think about it are pretty evident. A lot went wrong than right. There were key injuries, poor play from players with high expectations, and finally poor play by the team in general.
It all led to management finally having to pull the plug on this tremendous decade plus run of hockey and playoff hockey. It was a whirlwind of a season for sure and disappointing to say the least as this team although on the bubble of the playoff picture was still expected to be playing at the big stage in the end. Instead an injection of youth has been shot into this lineup and will continue to be in the coming years.
Training Camp and Early Part of Season
Entering the season there were a lot of questions surrounding this Rangers team. Would they be deep enough down the middle? How would newly signed Kevin Shattenkirk fit with the team? Would father time finally catch up to Henrik Lundqvist? These were all valid questions that were to be answered in the coming months.
The Rangers center depth issue would indeed be a problem for the team, along with defensive struggles and poor play from the newly resigned Brendan Smith. The Rangers first round picks Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson were not ready to play in the NHL yet and that left the Rangers even weaker down the middle.
The Blueshirts struggled mightily in the month of October going 3-7-2, before a game against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights who were off to a tremendous start in their inaugural season. Going into that matchup Head Coach Alain Vigneault was on the hottest seat possible. A loss to the Golden Knights could have meant a loss of his job. In that game the Rangers found themselves down 4-2 going into the third.
During the second intermission, Henrik Lundqvist the leader of the Rangers lit a fire under the team to play for the city of New York, as tragedy struck the city in the end of October. The Rangers were inspired and came back for a 6-4 victory. Including that miracle game, the Rangers proceeded to win 6 straight and went 17-6-2 over their next 25 games.
The team was in playoff position. Henrik Lundqvist was playing some of his best hockey in years, the center ice issue although a concern was working itself out and the team was playing decent defensively. However, a serious blood clot injury to Chris Kreider in a shootout win against the Washington Capitals on December 27th would be the first blow to a team that was about to derail fast.
Poor Play, “The Letter” and Trade Deadline
The band-aids the Rangers were trying to put at their center position and the poor defensive play that was masked by terrific goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist was starting to fall apart. The team was struggling mightily as key injuries piled up with not only Chris Kreider banged up, but Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Shattenkirk missing time as well.
Brendan Smith was continuing to struggle on the backend and was sent down to the AHL. Something no one foresaw coming. The losses and frustration kept piling up and questions loomed again as the team was getting further and further from playoff position.
Management finally saw enough. After a brutal 6-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, a letter was given to the fans by General Manager Jeff Gorton and Team President Glen Sather. In this letter the organization made its stance clear on the state of the franchise. Although the Rangers were only two points out of a playoff spot the white flag was raised and the for sale sign was up.
The New York Rangers would be rebuilding and many key players from all the success and all the playoff runs would be on the trade block. The only untouchable according to Bob McKenzie, Elliotte Friedman and Darren Dreger among others was the only player that was still on top of his game despite the freefall in the standings, Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers went from December 29th until trade deadline day 7-18-2. After the letter came out the Rangers played mostly uninspired as many in the locker room saw the changes coming. Finally, at trade deadline time changes indeed came. The Rangers traded, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, JT Miller and even captain Ryan McDonagh for a plethora of picks and prospects, as well as young roster players like Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestinkov.
End of Season
From trade deadline day to the final game against the Flyers, the went 7-9-2. Not that bad considering the team’s intention to tank the rest of the way. The Rangers for the most part have played teams hard down the stretch as their young talent have played well.
John Gilmour and Neal Pionk have been bright spots on the backend and Ryan Spooner has been great for the Rangers with 16 points in his 20 games with the Blueshirts. Even last years first round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil have come in and played well with Andersson scoring in his first NHL game. The injection of youth has seen its rough patches, but it has been refreshing to see all the same.
What’s Next for the Offseason?
The Rangers will have a busy offseason ahead of them as they will have a lot of cap space, but a lot of decisions to make as well. The Rangers have a lot of Restricted Free Agents (RFA’s) and might not be able to sign them all. This list of RFA’s include Defenseman Brady Skjei, John Gilmour, Rob O’Gara and forwards Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Hayes, Ryan Spooner and Vlad Namestnikov. The locks to be resigned would probably include Skjei, Gilmour, Vesey and Hayes. Spooner, O’Gara and Namestnikov are all question marks however.
The Rangers also have a lot of draft picks as well, with SEVEN picks in the first three rounds in the draft. This includes THREE first round picks. If the Rangers don’t draft horribly then that’s a lot of good prospects that can be added to a prospect pool that was once almost empty, but is now starting to really grow. One could ask if the Rangers might package two first rounders, to move up or get a good player. The best bet however is to pull a Boston Bruins from the 2015 draft and use all three first round picks.
When it comes to free agency, even though the Rangers will have plenty of cap space don’t expect them to be big buyers like in previous years. That means you can throw the John Tavares train out the window as he would unlikely want to listen to the Rangers if they asked to talk. Trading for Erik Karlsson is very unlikely as well. Re-signing Rick Nash is something that fans shouldn’t foresee happening either.
One possibility could be the returning Ilya Kovalchuk as he will be coming back to the NHL from the KHL after a five-year absence. Kovalchuk reportedly wants to play in New York as the former Devil would be welcomed. Kovalchuck who is now 35 may not be the same player he was before he left, but he’s pretty close to it. He can still skate well and his shot is still lethal, making him a potential 30 goal scoring threat. The Rangers in all likelihood would not be breaking the bank for him either.
Finally, I fully expect Head Coach Alain Vigneault to be let go within days after the end of the regular season as the playoffs begin. I wrote about this in a previous blog, but to sum it up, every coach has a shelf life and Vigneault’s is about to expire. He brought great success to the Rangers, but his bench management and treatment of young players will not help this team going forward.
The team needs a coach that will play and nurture young players and make them feel like they won’t lose ice team because of the odd mistake they made here or there. The Rangers need a strong coach to carry them through this rebuild. The Rangers if they fire Vigneault before the playoffs will have almost two months to interview and make a decision on their next head coach. I fully expect them to name one before this June’s draft in Dallas.
The future may not mean a whole lot of winning for the Rangers, but their will be some young exciting players in the lineup going forward. The future is bright with a ton of potential for the Blueshirts as it will take time, but the Rangers will be a contender and in the playoffs again. Hopefully for the fanbase, that is sooner rather than later.
Follow @NHLNosebleed for more!