Hope is a better companion than fear. — Poet Martin Farquhar Tupper
Looking ahead, the Rangers and their legion of supporters have reason to break into a grateful grin, Cup Final notwithstanding.
Forget the sting of that double-overtime defeat Friday night. Poof! Just like that, it’s all ancient history.
Then again, looking ahead, the Blueshirt Nation can take solace in the recent past because of what it suggests for the future.
Stars who were mere flickers last October are glittering in the present. The likes of Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepanand Cam Talbot portend nothing, but a fluorescent outlook for the Blueshirts.
This was the locker room sense as the Cup Finalists packed their gear on Monday at the training center in Greenburgh, NY.
“When you get that close, you learn a lot about what it takes. And, as a team, we just gained a lot from that experience,” said Dominic Moore. “There’s definitely a lot to build on and there’s a lot to be excited about.”
After being labeled the inexperienced underdogs in the Final against the been-there-done-that Kings, the Rangers can now say that they’ve been there, but haven’t quite done it.
Entering last season as marginal contenders, the Eastern Conference Champs are now a formidable group of stick-handlers orchestrated by a cerebral coach, Alain Vigneault, whom they respect.
“We talked about how hard it is to win,” said Chris Kreider, a young Ranger whose game significantly improved under the coach called AV.
“You don’t really understand that until you experience it first-hand. Plus, each round is so much more difficult. If anything, it makes me more excited to come back and get going again.”
Kreider’s return in the Eastern Conference Semifinal round against the Penguins sparked the Rangers in their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. Kreider, who is expected to return to the Rangers as an restricted free agent, is a key piece to the club.
“It’s a great core group,” Rick Nash said. “I haven’t seen a group as tight as this one. It’s pretty special.”
Nash, whose production didn’t match his peerless worth ethic, needs to tighten up his own game next season in order to take the Rangers up and over the top.
But everyone in the room — before the breakup — was aware that there’s other business ahead for management. High on the list will be picking the next captain.
Although no official disclosure is likely until training camp opens in September, the favorite for the “C” is McDonagh. The team-elected MVP gave a Promethean effort, averaging 26.49 minutes per game.
“I took another step this year,” McDonagh said. “Expectations are going to be higher next year and I’m looking forward to it. We’ve got no egos on this team, and everybody bought into his role. We left it all on the line.”
The coaching transformation from John Tortorella’s style to Vigneault’s improved the games of Kreider, Zuccarello, McDonagh, and Brad Richards.
There is a lot of talk that Richards will be bought out and other Rangers may exit Stage Left for one reason — as in Free Agency — or another. And as each Ranger walked out the door, he inspired thoughts about those who won’t be wearing New York blue next season.
That, in turn, compels the next — and easily the most difficult — question: Which unrestricted free agents will Glen Sather be able to sign?
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
ANTON STRALMAN: No doubt the unsung hero for the Blueshirts from October to June. Stralman said he’d like to stay in New York, but added that he and his family are looking for stability. The Rangers would love to retain him, but his asking price may be outside their budget. Meanwhile, other suitors will be waiting at the door. So, the coveted right-handed blueliner will have to decide if he wants a home on Seventh Avenue.
RAPHAEL DIAZ: The 28-year-old right-hander could re-sign with the Rangers for a year or two, but slightly under his current rate, whether or not Stralman returns.
BENOIT POULIOT: He had a choppy start to the regular season, but found his niche alongside Zuccy and Derick Brassard. The winger’s one-year deal is done, and so might his time with the Rangers.
BRIAN BOYLE: The Rangers’ shorthanded shot-blocker and one-time Stanley Cup sniper likely will be coveted. The towering fourth-line center/winger may not be on the coach’s page. This is a tricky one.
DOMINIC MOORE: The fourth-line center had a commendable comeback season and said in a wrap-up interview that he’d “love to come back” to New York. Figure him back on a multi-year deal.
DAN CARCILLO: Some say he’s a goner, but we like him when he stays out of the penalty box and away from suspensions.
NOTABLE RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
CHRIS KREIDER: The 23-year-old knows what he has to work on in the offseason, but as his first professional contract expires, the star-in-the-making winger is due to become a key power forward for years to come.
DERICK BRASSARD: The 26-year-old centered the Rangers most consistently effective line this season. And since the club needs centers, Brassard figures to become a fixture.
MATS ZUCCARELLO: The points-leader (59) and offensive MVP for the Eastern Conference Champions is in the same boat as Brassard. The difference is that Zuccy has become a fan favorite for his tenacity, speed and production.
JOHN MOORE: Lacking arbitration rights, the 23-year-old blueliner shows promise and delivered big-time in the Rangers’ only Cup win in the Final Round.
Under the cool, calm and collected Vigneault, the Rangers remained a work-in-progress even after they clinched a playoff berth.
Pleasant surprises out-numbered disappointments, particularly in goal where Cam Talbot expertly took over as back-up to Henrik Lundqvist without missing a beat. Not to mention Kevin Klein, who replaced Michael Del Zotto.
The departure of Ryan Callahan hurt not a bit as Martin St. Louis stepped in, providing leadership and key goals throughout the playoff run. Marty was second to McDonagh in Rangers scoring throughout the post-season.
Last September, when the sport’s bible, The Hockey News, viewed the Rangers chances, it called them 17-1 to win The Cup. Clearly they did a lot better than anticipated and, therefore, this must be viewed as an upbeat season!
Rangers fans should have no fear because there’s a surplus of hope looking ahead to 2014-15.