Before this season began expectations weren’t sky-high for the Rangers, who after losing the 2014 Stanley Cup Final had legitimate championship aspirations for the ensuing two seasons. Jeff Gorton didn’t overhaul the roster before the 2016-17 campaign, but he retooled and put together a group that looked like it would be in the playoff mix but not be a Cup contender.
The Rangers started the season brilliantly, this mix of young and old, and overall had a better season than most anticipated. The fourth-place team in the Metropolitan Division got the coveted first wild-card spot to slide into the Atlantic side of the playoff bracket, a more manageable path to a conference final berth.
They conquered Montreal but beat themselves against Ottawa, and now Gorton must figure out how to better position the Blueshirts to win a second championship since 1940 and take advantage of the time 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist has left.
Here are five questions the Rangers face this offseason:
1. BREAK UP THE CORE?
Seven straight years Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh have played in postseasons together. Those five, in order, are the five leaders in postseason games played in franchise history. Chris Kreider just played in his sixth straight, and Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello have played in each of the last five. The Rangers have won nine playoff rounds in the last six postseasons but haven’t broken through for a championship.
Girardi and Staal have constantly put their bodies on the line over the last 11 and 10 years, respectively. They’re ring-of-honor type players, but they’re just not the players they once were after various injuries. Stepan, who has a $ 6.5 million cap hit through 2020-21, had a disappointing postseason. Kreider had his moments, but they were way too few and far between.
Nash was tremendous in the first round but appeared hampered physically against Ottawa. He has one year left on his deal with a $ 7.8 million cap hit. On his best days, he’s the Rangers’ top forward.
The Rangers need to upgrade defensively, which leads us to this …
2. BUY OUT A D-MAN?
With their cumbersome contracts, Gorton will have to consider buying out either Girardi or Staal. A buyout would involve having dead money on the cap for double the remaining length on the contract. Girardi, 33, has three years left with an annual cap hit of $ 5.5 million. Staal, 30, has four years left with an annual cap hit of $ 5.7 million.
As a righty, Girardi might be more attractive to keep, but the cap consequences make him the more likely candidate. According to CapFriendly.com, a Staal buyout would mean $ 2,133,333 in dead cap space the next two seasons, $ 3,133,333 in 2019-20, $ 3,933,333 in 2020-21 and $ 1,433,333 in each of the four seasons afterward.
Here are the dead-space numbers on a potential Girardi buyout, according to the website: $ 2,611,111 for 2017-18, $ 3,611,111 for the following two seasons and $ 1,111,111 for each of the three seasons after through 2022-23.
3. WHAT SHOULD BE MADE OF THESE INDIVIDUAL PLAYOFF DISAPPOINTMENTS?
In addition to Stepan and Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes also struggled in the postseason after each made strides during the regular season. Miller and Hayes each finished with zero goals and three assists in 12 playoff games.
It amounts to a small sample size compared to the regular season, but these are four forwards who play significant roles. All four are very talented and need to provide more consistency in these moments.
4. HOW SHOULD FREE AGENCY BE ATTACKED?
Brendan Smith, whom the Rangers acquired for two picks at the deadline, is their top unrestricted free agent. For a while he raised his game in the postseason until tough moments near the end. He’s worth bringing back as long as his price isn’t overly prohibitive.
Kevin Shattenkirk, the New Rochelle native acquired by Washington at the deadline and long linked to the Blueshirts, is a UFA but will definitely be pricey. If it wasn’t going to work with Keith Yandle, who ended up having his rights traded to Florida last year before signing a seven-year, $ 44.45 million deal, it probably won’t work with Shattenkirk unless significant cap space is created.
Mika Zibanejad is their top arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. A middle ground should eventually be reached after the Rangers acquired Zibanejad last summer for Derick Brassard. Zibanejad had ups and downs but peaked near the end of the postseason and boasts promise.
Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast are also key RFAs. The Rangers will lose one player to the Vegas Golden Knights in next month’s expansion draft, which will impact their plans.
5. HOW CAN THE POWER PLAY BE FIXED?
The Rangers’ power play went through a huge malaise for nearly two months starting in mid-January, and they struggled in the playoffs to the tune of 3-for-39 (7.7 percent.) Do they need a power-play booster a la Shattenkirk? How do the man-advantage woes reflect on associate coach Scott Arniel? Will the coaching staff remain intact?