“Sweet are the uses of adversity” – William Shakespeare
As Rangers fans have learned since their beloved Blueshirts exited the playoffs on Friday night, the sun still managed to come up in the East on Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings.
Furthermore, it will continue to do so as our hockey lives move on to the next challenge. And, as Shakespeare noted, despite the defeat, there are sweet uses to the adversity of missing the Final round. In fact, when the franchise’s is future is concerned it’s as bright as any team in the NHL; if not the brightest of all.
With that in mind, The Maven offers a dozen wonderful things for the Rangers and their supporters to anticipate next season.
1. THE RETURN OF MATS ZUCCARELLO
If ever a Ranger was conspicuous by his absence in the second and third playoff rounds, it was little Matsy. Last Fall, the peripatetic right wing was coming off a career season. Instead of faltering, Zucky’s game improved and by season’s end he had become one of the Blueshirts most valuable forwards, if not the most consistent and well-rounded of the bunch. Surely, the Rangers playoff fate would have been more fabulous had Mats not suffered a concussion in the opening round. But that’s theoretical ancient history. What matters is that a healthy Zuccarello will bring vim, vigor and vitality to the lineup as well as the confidence built on a pair of outstanding seasons.
2. THE ASCENT OF J.T. MILLER
At age 22, the first-rounder of 2011 earned a regular berth and then enhanced the offense with sparkling playoff performances. Once a point per game player in the American Hockey League, Miller has the goods to achieve similar numbers with a year or two more of NHL experience.
To nobody’s surprise, Henrik Lundqvist was the Rangers most valuable player from the Game 1 against Pittsburgh in the playoffs right down to the final game on Friday night vs. the Lightning.
Since goaltenders mature later than forwards or defenders, Lundqvist, at 33, figures to be solid for years to come; therefore, he is in a solid place on the crease throne. What becomes fascinating conjecture is the fate of Henny’s beloved back-up, Cam Talbot.
The Caledonia, Ontario stopper stunned skeptics to the core when he successfully answered the 911 call once Lundqvist went down with injury. Talbot’s game has numero uno quality written all over it and, therefore, gives boss Glen Sather the option to trade Cam for a valuable lineup addition. On the other hand, the President-General Manager might very well decide that backup Talbot is too vital to the roster and, therefore, retain him. In that regard, Cam will get more games than ever and King Henrik more rest. Either way, it’s a winning combo for the cause.
4. KREIDER AS SUPERSTAR
We have not nearly seen the best of Chris Kreider. He’s a stud power-forward-in-the-making. Chris already has made a name for himself with a blend of scoring ability and a gritty edge that suitably infuriates most foes. But the best has yet to come and if all his admirable ingredients fall into place, expect Chris to reach All-Star status within two years.
5. THE CAPTAIN AS LEADER
When Ryan McDonagh had the captain’s “C” affixed to his uniform last autumn there was no way of knowing whether he would fit into the inspiring category displayed by Ryan Callahan and other Rangers leaders of yesteryear. McDonagh not only accepted the challenge, but has developed into a two-way defender worth of Norris Trophy consideration in seasons ahead. Working the blue line or quarterbacking the power play, McDonagh leads by example. What better proof that his willingness to play games in the Conference Final despite a broken foot. That’s a leader if ever there was one.
6. THE NASH CONUNDRUM
Rick Nash‘s host of goals during the regular season lifted him to the elite level that fans had expected him to reach. The fact that he didn’t become a big-time is an easily solved riddle. Just the fact that he had such a bountiful regular season tells me that his next year’s challenge will be doing likewise in the playoffs. With Rick in New York, it has to be one big step at a time. The best Nash season — regular and playoffs — could be on tap for 2015-16. Why not? He’s in mint condition and knows what challenge is ahead.
7. VERSATILE DEFENSIVE CORPS
Between the blend contributed by McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Kevin Klein and Keith Yandle, New York boasts backliners who can defend, score and work special teams as well as any similar unit in the league. And each performer is in his prime.
No, he didn’t bring the Stanley Cup to Seventh Avenue; at least not yet. But Alain Vigneault gets some gold stars for the Presidents’ Trophy as well as his cucumber cool demeanor. Make no mistake, AV will be expected to reach higher next season; as in reaching the playoffs and winning the Cup. And there’s nothing wrong with that in terms of incentives.
The off-season would not be the off-season without Glen Sather pulling off a trade. Who can forget his deal that brought McDonagh to the Gotham? What could be more exciting than the prospect of a blockbuster deal before training camp opens? Not much.
10. THE MATURATION OF HAYES AND FAST
With this duet, Vigneault has “The Next Ones,” following the Kreider’s and Derek Stepan’s. Kevin Hayes enjoyed a strong rookie season filled with physical and systematic adjustments. Kevin will be a player to watch next season. Jesper Fast demonstrated that he can play reliable NHL minutes and with a bit more seasoning will become a steady regular. Both bring a variety of skills and dynamism complementing the Rangers accent on speed and creativity.
11. KEITH YANDLE’S ADJUSTMENT
After arriving in New York with considerable fuss and fanfare at the trade deadline, Yandle required time to adjust to AV’s system. He found himself in the playoffs, picking up 11 points. He should be more comfortable and effective next season.
A healthy block of Rangers core players who make up the franchise’s future are locked up long-term. Every team loses a hand full of stick-handlers via free agency. The Blueshirts high command will deal with James Sheppard — useful against the Lightning — and the always reliable pinch-defenseman Matt Hunwick in a proper manner. Future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis poses a challenge because of his age and declining production.
Whether any of the aforementioned stay or go, the bottom line is this most important fact: The Rangers will feature essentially the same Presidents’ Trophy-winning roster next year, enabling them to dynamically compete for the Stanley Cup.
And with the improving youth movement and experience from this year’s run, they will be an even better club than the one that so thoroughly thrilled us from October through May!