The Rangers’ roster that skated off the ice in Ottawa in stunned disbelief, then three nights later shook hands with the Senators who were gifted a series despite being outplayed for most of the first five games, is gonna change.
The roster, the lineup, will have a new look when training camp opens in September, if not sooner, in this second straight long summer.
But let’s back it up a bit. This Rangers roster was going to change whether they’d survived that second-round series or not. Last spring, when they were eliminated by eventual Stanley Cup champ Pittsburgh, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault predicted change.
Fact of the matter, the Rangers didn’t have the cap space to do a lot, without going sideways, and instead chose to add rookies Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei – and in August won a heated contest for rookie Jimmy Vesey. Their big signing of last summer – which worked out better than anybody could have hoped – was Michael Grabner.
Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said he thought about blowing it up, but determined it was better to re-tool than completely rebuild. This summer won’t be a rebuild, either, but it should feature significant alterations.
That means, among other things, the possibility of the shedding of some of the core group of Henrik Lundqvist (not going anywhere), Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. Even Gorton likely doesn’t know how many of those will be gone, or how many will be back.
This summer, there can’t be untouchables, and there won’t be, though Gorton will have to work some magic with the no-trade clauses owned by much of the core players.
Vigneault did allow on Thursday, after he and Gorton held exit meetings before the team scattered for summer, that the goal is to add another young defenseman. That probably doesn’t mean New Rochelle’s Kevin Shattenkirk, who will break the bank as a righty puck-moving D-man in unrestricted free agency (possibly $7 million per for seven years?).
No, if the Rangers want a significant young defenseman it will likely have to come via trade, and since teams aren’t giving away players like that, Gorton is going to have to give to get. They will surely make a bid to keep defenseman Brendan Smith, an unrestricted free agent, if the price is right.
Also, the Vegas expansion draft is going to cost the Rangers one player they want to keep; short version: Jesper Fast, Grabner or Antti Raanta will likely be selected by the new Golden Knights and ex-Ranger George McPhee, the expansionists’ GM.
One change not expected to be made is that of the head coach. In January, Gorton made it pretty clear that he wants Vigneault to help lead the retooling when he locked him up with a two-year extension, through 2019-20, with a raise from his reported $2 million annual salary on the five-year contract he originally signed in 2013. Vigneault’s assistants, the head coach said, will be evaluated in the next few weeks.
“It’s a series, to a man, and Gorts and I just talked to all the players, we all believe that we should still be playing,” Vigneault told the media Thursday.
“We are not. It’s very disappointing. It’s going to take some time to get over, but I also think it’s important to note that there were a lot of positives this year. We came in and retooled a little on the fly. For the most part, we were one of the top five teams, top five in scoring. A lot of good things for a team that is retooling and wasn’t given a lot of chance as far as getting into the playoffs. This disappointment will go into our bank of experience and maybe we will use it better next time.”
There is always change from season to season, but when one of the better NHL teams, as the Rangers have been for six seasons, lose in the first round in one year, and a staggering second-round loss the next, transformation a given.
“It was the same talk last year,” Lundqvist said.
“When it comes to this team and next year, we always expect changes. It’s part of the business, but what changes, we will wait and see. That is up to management to see what is the best way to go here, but it’s part of the business obviously to see some guys go and some new faces come here. We will leave that to management.”
That the anticipated turnover could hit the core group, Lundqvist said, “this team — if you asked me if we had a chance to win this year, absolutely. So I believe in this group. I believe in what we have in this room, but we came up short. I think it’s important here to analyze and correct it for next year. You look at the regular season and playoffs and in the end, there are a lot of teams not playing going into the playoffs and the second round. There is definitely some good things here and we should feel good about that, but we came up short on our goal.”
The Rangers think they should be getting ready to play the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.
“We’ve come close, but this is a results-oriented business,” McDonagh said. “You’ve got to get results. You know the team’s going to do whatever it can to put a team on the ice that it thinks can win.”
That is out of the players hands now, and in the hands of Gorton and his staff and Vigneault, starting as soon as June, when the expansion draft and the entry draft occur in a matter of days, and when no-trade clauses kick in, restricted free agents must be tendered, and just prior to the July 1 free agency sweepstakes.
For now, Lundqvist will go play for Sweden and Kevin Hayes and Skjei will join Team USA at the World Championships in Germany. For Lundqvist, it’s an opportunity to play with his twin brother and former NHLer Joel, Sweden’s captain, and to represent his country for what, he noted, could be the final time given the NHL’s decision to not participate in the next Winter Olympics.
Vigneault, who made similar comments about Hayes and J.T. Miller at the end of last season, mentioned that Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad need to find consistency in their games to reach their expected levels. He said Zibanejad is “at a crossroad” and added, “the Chris Kreider we saw in the third period of Game 6, boy, I would have liked to see him on a more regular basis. That is part of the growth and evolution as a player.”
The Rangers’ still young players – Kreider, Zibanejad, Hayes, Miller, Fast, Lindberg, Skjei, Vesey, Buchnevich, even Stepan – are going to have to be a big part of the new core group soon after the retooling.
Or at least, those who remain will have to be that.