An unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final ended with the New York Rangers falling to the defending Stanley Cup champion, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in six games. As the Lightning’s play showed during their four straight victories, the Rangers are not at their level yet – but they can be. For a team that was in the midst of a rebuild just 12 months ago, they are close to reaching that level.
Every team will taste defeat before rising to the top. The Lightning were no different, getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets despite being heavy favorites the year before they won their first Stanley Cup since 2004.
Knowing how to make the necessary adjustments to push a team to that next level is critical. That quest starts now for the Rangers and general manager Chris Drury, as this offseason will be less about reconstruction and more about finding the last pieces of the puzzle.
For head coach Gerard Gallant, three areas that need improvement stood out during the playoffs. Three areas that, if the Rangers can make the adjustments, could make them the team that heads to the Stanley Cup Final next season.
3. Rangers’ Kids Deserve More Ice Time
A massive bright spot during this incredible run was the play of the ‘Kid Line,’ comprised of Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko. The elder statesman on the line was Chytil at 22 years old; hence, the ‘Kid Line’ moniker.
Yet, the line played more like a trio of veterans than a group of playoff rookies, creating chances consistently and finishing the postseason as the Rangers’ best line analytically. According to Money Puck, they finished with an expected goals percentage of 50% at five-on-five and expected goals allowed at five-on-five of 6.6 – both were the best amongst the Rangers’ forward line combinations.
Despite their brilliance for most of the postseason, the ‘Kids Line’ was broken up in a must-win Game 6 by Gallant after the surprising scratch of Kakko. That was a puzzling decision and even more so after the Rangers sputtered all night. Even with their dominant numbers at five-on-five, the ‘Kids Line’ spent just 140:19 together on the ice. Andrew Copp, Artemi Panarin, and Ryan Strome played 207:40 together, while Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Frank Vatrano played 195:40, per Natural Stat Trick.
The salary cap will limit Drury’s ability to improve the roster, and the head coach must be willing to increase the role of younger players on the team. That extends past the ‘Kid Line’ to include players like Braden Schneider, Zac Jones, and others who may become roster regulars next season.
2. Improving Rangers’ Five-on-Five Play
An area of the Rangers’ game that plagued them all season was their atrocious play at full strength. Inconsistent linemates and a new-look roster post-trade deadline helped, but their flaws were exposed in the postseason.
Miraculously, they made it to Game 6 of the conference final on the heels of great goaltending and a superb power play. Some might look at that as an unreasonable ask for next season, but I consider it a sign that if improvements are made, the Rangers could be excellent. Nonetheless, five-on-five was their demise this season.
No playoff team finished with a lower expected goals percentage than the Rangers at five-on-five, with 38.68%. The two teams battling for the Stanley Cup, the Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche, have a 54.4% and 57.2% expected goal percentage, respectively.
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The Rangers were still very raw this postseason. The roster had not been through a playoff grind outside of a handful of players. With this experience under their belt, look for the Rangers to come back next season and try to dictate play at five-on-five. With some tweaks and improvements and controlling play by winning more faceoffs, they should improve.
1. Defensive Zone and Rush Coverage
Getting bailed out was the Rangers’ motto this season. Igor Shesterkin’s greatness kept them alive, and the Rangers need to improve their defensive game to ease the pressure on their goaltender.
At five-on-five, the Rangers finished the postseason with 38 goals for and 38 goals against. As a team, they were expected to score 35.63 goals but were also expected to give up an absurd 56.49 goals. Miraculously, they gave up just 38 due to Shesterkin, but the number of grade-A chances surrendered has to diminish going forward.
Too many times, players were left open in front. Too many times, the Rangers failed to clear a puck resulting in a long, scrambling shift in their end. Too many times did they get beat up the ice in transition, resulting in a clean look for the opposition, most notably 21 seconds after they tied Game 6 against Lightning.
The play above is a mirror image of what got the Rangers into trouble early and often in their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it cost them their season. Flip the perspective, and Tampa Bay did not allow the Rangers to generate speed through the neutral zone. That is how you win championships, and the Rangers should take note.
The team has the makings and core to become a Lightning-esque group. I am not saying they will go to three-straight Stanley Cup Finals, but they can be competitive each year. For them to do that, Gallant has to get this group to tighten up on the defensive side of the puck.
Will the Rangers Implement These Changes?
We will see how good this team can be and the longevity of their window based on how they start next season. If the same problems pop up nightly, that is cause for concern. But if they can clean up the areas mentioned above, buckle up for a fun ride.
It is important to remember that the Rangers exceeded expectations this season and have now entered their window of contention. They were one of the final four teams in a season many had them penciled in on the playoff bubble. Despite their inconsistencies and flaws, they found ways to eliminate very good teams and ultimately force the champions to play six out of a possible seven games.
With all the optimism surrounding the group’s future, there are always areas in which to improve. For the Rangers, these three are a great place to start.