For the New York Rangers, this felt like the year. Coming off a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season where they lost to the Los Angeles Kings, the Rangers handled the ensuing high expectations quite well this year, with a 113-point campaign en route to the team’s first Presidents’ Trophy since 1994.
Their season ended in disappointment however, with a lethargic Game 7 loss on home ice to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. News of players battling through significant injuries — including defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Keith Yandle — combined with the absence of winger Mats Zuccarello in the second and third rounds — offered some explanation but certainly no consolation for the club’s failure.
Between the deep playoff runs the Rangers had last year and this year, it’s fair to think that they might have just had their best chances to win the Stanley Cup in the near future. As the 31-year-old Girardi painfully admitted in the wake of New York’s elimination, “I hate to say it, but I’m getting older and the window might be closing. We have such a good group of guys here. It’s really disappointing that we couldn’t get another shot at the Cup this year.” (New York Post)
Thankfully though, Girardi isn’t necessarily correct about the Rangers’ window closing.
The Rangers’ core is actually fairly young, and should be together for at least another handful of years. Playoff wizard Derick Brassard, who played the best hockey of his career this season, is only 27 years old and is signed for the next four years. Zuccarello — who is expected to make a full recovery and play next season after his scary injury suffered in the first round — is signed for the same length of time and is also 27.
McDonagh, the team’s captain and anchor on the blue line, is only 25 and signed for another four years as well. Chris Kreider is 24 and still improving. Coming off a career-high 21 goals and 46 points, Kreider has the physical traits and natural ability to become a star in the NHL. Center Derek Stepan is a restricted free agent but it’s unimaginable that the Rangers would not re-sign the 24-year-old. Speedy depth player Carl Hagelin, 26, is also a restricted free agent and less of a certainty to be retained, but it’s still very likely that he will be back in the fold with the Blueshirts next year.
Then there’s rangy center/right wing Kevin Hayes, a rising star coming off a rookie campaign that saw him tally 17 goals and 28 assists. New York’s signing of the college free agent and former first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks takes some of the pain away from the loss of prospect Anthony Duclair and numerous first-round picks in trades. Hayes is just 23 and, like Kreider, could also be on a path to stardom.
The 22-year-old J.T. Miller, a former first-round draft pick himself, finally established himself as a consistent contributor to the Rangers. He will almost certainly be re-signed, as he is a restricted free agent. Miller should prove to be an offensive force for the Blueshirts in the years to come. Another player who made a name for himself with the big club this season was Jesper Fast, 23. He formed solid chemistry on a line with Stepan and Kreider in the postseason, and is another restricted free agent whom the Rangers should be able to bring back.
Regarding prospects, the Rangers do not have the deepest pool, but they do have very promising youngsters in defenseman Brady Skjei and forward Pavel Buchnevich. When they are ready — likely sometime within the next two years — they will augment the Rangers’ already-strong core.
Leading scorer Rick Nash was better this past postseason than most people perceived, with 14 points in 19 games. He will be 31 next season but still looks to have at least a few more years of prime performance in him. On the backend, Staal and Yandle are each still 28, and form a solid group with veterans Girardi and Kevin Klein.
The Rangers also have some flexibility with the 30-year-old Klein, who had a rough postseason after returning in the second round from a broken arm suffered in the regular season. Klein is signed at an annual cap hit of $2.9 million over the next three years, a very movable contract should the Rangers wish to explore trading him for more youth or to re-bolster their pool of draft picks.
Another defenseman, Dan Boyle, also was not as bad as many people thought. Hopefully for the Rangers, they can get one more year of decent production out of him, before the 38-year-old’s $4.5 million cap hit comes off the books and offers the Rangers a bit more wiggle room for the 2016-17 season. Perhaps the club will then try to re-sign Yandle, who will be an unrestricted free agent after next season. The Rangers are currently paying only half of Yandle’s salary after their trade with the Arizona Coyotes. Yandle is an elite puck-mover who should do big things for New York next season once he is fully settled in and healthy. So even though his price tag will go up, re-signing him might be a good move, as he offers the club a unique skillset from the backend.
One veteran who severely regressed as the season went along before really hitting a wall in the playoffs was future hall-of-famer Martin St. Louis. At 39 and coming off a bad showing down the stretch, it appears that St. Louis’s NHL career — or at least his time with the Rangers — might be drawing to a close. With the aforementioned key RFAs they need to re-sign, it seems unlikely that the Rangers would bring back St. Louis, an unrestricted free agent. While he did put up 52 points in the regular season before slowing down, that production should be more than made up for by the continued development of players like Hayes, Miller, Kreider, and Fast.
Then of course, there’s the King. Henrik Lundqvist is 33, so yes, he is close to entering the tail-end of his career. But he has shown no signs of slowing down (his lackluster performance in Games 2 and 3 against the Lightning do not offer nearly enough evidence), as he is still in his prime. It’s not unreasonable to think that he could have three or more years of elite-level play left in him. And frankly, if the Rangers continue to build a strong team in front of him, he might not always have to bail them out. No disrespect to Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi, but the Blackhawks have shown that elite goaltending isn’t necessarily a must-have to win a Stanley Cup. It just needs to be serviceable.
While getting as far in the playoffs as the Rangers have in the past few seasons is never easy, and while no opportunity can be taken for granted, it’s shortsighted to think that New York’s window is closing. While older players like Nash, Lundqvist, and St. Louis have typically gotten most of the media attention, the team is actually buoyed largely by a strong young core. The growth of these players, combined with Lundqvist still maintaining his status as one of the best goalies in the NHL, puts the Rangers in a good position to remain a strong contender for at least the next few years.