Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck came down the ice last Saturday evening in Sunrise, Florida with a win hanging in the balance as he faced Henrik Lundqvist in the third round of the shootout with the game tied 3-3.
The New York Rangers and Panthers were both in unfamiliar territory on this March evening. For just the second time since 2006, the Rangers were looking at the reality of missing the playoffs. The Panthers meanwhile, are in the thick of a battle for the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, trying to make the postseason for just the sixth time in their history.
Trocheck made a series of slick moves and put the puck into the net, giving the Panthers a very important extra point, leaving them just one point out of the playoffs. Lundqvist, who has been looking like a prime version of himself in the past three weeks, dejectedly left the crease and snapped his goal stick in two as he left the ice on his way to the locker room.
Losing Is Unfamiliar to this Generation of Rangers Fans
It’s a scene the Rangers and their fans are not used to and, on the surface, these are very dark times. A season in which some believed was a chance to re-enter the conversation for a Stanley Cup is about to end with some of their biggest names competing for a championship for teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins.
Saturday’s shootout loss, like so many losses that have accumulated in 2018, should be disappointing. However, what those players and coach Alain Vigneault will never admit is this: while the extra point was important for the Panthers’ playoff hopes, that lost point was just as important for the Rangers in their quest to obtain as high a draft pick as possible.
Because in a hard salary cap world and the increasing importance of developing your own prospects, if you’re not fighting to be first, you should be fighting to be last. And if Rangers fans want to see their team playing in June again anytime soon, they should be cheering for the demise of this 2017-18 squad.
For nearly 15 years, the Rangers have been picking in the latter half of the first round of the draft, if they had a first-round selection at all. During their Stanley Cup window, the Rangers gave away first-round picks like Oprah Winfrey gave away food processors on her show. And like the Tampa Bay Lightning are doing now, it’s okay to surrender top draft picks when a team is just one or two players away from potentially winning the greatest trophy in professional sports.
However, there is a price for that sort of aggression, and despite that the Rangers signed guys like Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey to supplement those lost high round picks, it took its toll evidenced by how barren their prospect pool was entering this season. One need only look at last year’s AHL standings to see that the Rangers’ affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack, were the worst team in the league and it wasn’t close.
The Rebuild Started Before We Even Knew It
Management started fixing the roster way back in June when Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta were packaged in a deal for Tony D’Angelo and what would be Lias Andersson, the 7th selection in the draft. When it became apparent, that this season was going to be a bust, well…we all know the rest of the story.
As the team sifts through the rubble, with franchise players like Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash playing elsewhere, fans continue to forget the bigger picture and instead look at shootout losses to the Panthers or a bad loss to the Lightning as signs of failure. But these fans need to look to the future and not if Henrik Lundqvist can win another five games this season.
You know what's really sad, is that Hank won't get 30 wins this season. Team can't even get him 5 more Ws this season. Stuck at 25. Give Hank 30!
— Harry Asimenos (@HaAsimenos) March 11, 2018
There is Light at the End of the Tunnel
As we settle in for the final weeks of the season, it’s important to keep this in mind: losing is winning. It is a warped point of view but as we’ve seen with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, or recently in Major League Baseball with teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, a few years of futility can be rewarded in just a couple of years, provided front office management knows how to pick the right prospects.
For now though, while fans may be despondent, it’s time to hope that the Rangers last few games of the season result in as many losses as possible and gain a top three pick for the first time since 1966 when they chose legend Bard Park 2nd overall.
New York Daily News writer Justin Tasch crunched the numbers last week concluding: “Finishing eighth-worst in the league would give them an 18.3 percent chance at a top-three draft choice and a 5.8 percent chance at the No. 1 pick.”
At the time of writing, the Rangers are still eighth-worst and sit eight points ahead of the Vancouver Canucks for the fourth-worst record in the league and ten points up on the Ottawa Senators for third-worst. As Harvey Dent said in the movie “The Dark Knight”: “The night is darkest before the dawn and I promise you, the dawn is coming.”
It may be dark in Gotham but dawn is on the horizon. With three first-round draft picks in June (which is part of a staggering ten draft picks overall), a slew of prospects led by Andersson, Philip Chytil, Ty Ronning and Igor Shestyorkin, and what looks to be a lot of cap space for a strong 2019 class of free agents, the Rangers could be in contention sooner than people think.