A season never truly ends, so much as a new one begins.
On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, the New York Rangers said their final goodbyes to their disappointing 2017-18 season. But one thing every player made sure to mention was how important it is to be prepared for next season.
“It was a great learning experience,” said rookie defenseman Neal Pionk. “I got to learn from the older guys about life in the NHL; how to prepare for a game and recover from one. This league is too good for you to be satisfied. I have to have a huge summer and come to camp ready.”
Pionk’s zest to improve is a sign of his maturity, but also a motivating factor. “I really appreciated my time with coach Alain Vigneault and now, we’re all in the same boat with the new coach. I have to try and make the team. Essentially, I view it as being back at square zero. My focus is to win.”
That’s heady stuff from the freshman. Lucky for the Rangers, he’s not the only young gun to feel that way.
“I have to apply everything I learned from my trial in the NHL to my summer training,” said John Gilmour. “I plan to work on my strength and speed; basically improve my entire game. Part of that will be watching the defensemen currently in the playoffs. After all, in my opinion, watching video is an extremely helpful tool.”
For Pionk and Gilmour, part of improving their game will be leaning on the team’s “veteran” leadership.
“I’m not the biggest talker in the locker room,” said Zibanejad. “I try just to let my game speak for itself. But for the young guys, we all have to step up and be mentors. Our focus is on getting better and if everybody adopts that mindset we’ll be a better team … We’re going to come hungry next season.”
Of course, part of that hunger and excitement is due in part to one of Zibanejad’s linemates. Namely, Chris Kreider.
“It’s evident we like to play with each other,” Zibanejad told the media during Tuesday’s exit interviews. “I feel like we really compliment each other well.”
Ah, if only Kreider felt the same way. When Chris was asked about Mika’s comments he said — with a straight face — “I guess that feeling is a one-way street.”
Moving quickly past his joke, Kreider said, “Mika’s a really competitive guy. He’s a hungry dog and when things aren’t going well he puts his nose down and works even harder. You can never have too many players like him on a team.”
Meanwhile, Kreider feels his season was incomplete; having missed two months with a scary blood clot injury that required surgery. “It was a weird year for the team and for me,” said Kreider.
That incomplete feeling is part of the reason he accepted Team USA’s invitation to play in the World Championship tournament. “I had three months off,” said Kreider. “I already had my summer. I want to play some more hockey.”
Kreider isn’t alone in that sentiment as Kevin Shattenkirk also missed a large chunk of the season after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in January.
“It’s obviously a year that did not go well for me or the team,” said Shattenkirk. “I’m very determined this summer to get back into amazing shape and be the player fans and management expect me to be.”
For Shattenkirk, his season never really got going. He hurt his knee in training camp and although he started the season strong, the condition of his knee slowly deteriorated.
“It was just one of those things where it eventually got worse,” said Shattenkirk. “We knew going into the season we’d likely have to make a decision in January and it had gotten to the point where I needed surgery.”
Even though Kevin didn’t return after his operation, he’s optimistic he’ll have a normal offseason before heading to training camp. He’s also confident the Rangers can hasten the speed of their rebuild.
“Rebuilds can go faster if you have the right guys and culture in place,” he said. “Look at the league. Teams like Toronto, New Jersey and even Boston, they all had a short process. And, the beauty of playing for the Rangers is that this is an organization that guys want to come play for. Plus, we have a great group of guys to build a core and culture around.”
Similar to Zibanejad, Shattenkirk feels he can be a mentor to the “Baby Blueshirts.”
“I want to be a guy the young players can look up to,” said Shattenkirk. “Management knows what it’s doing. They want us to be good for years to come, not just one year.”
Getting back to the Rangers year in review; Kevin Hayes said it best, “We didn’t make the playoffs and it’s something we should all be thinking about during the summer.”
As for his thoughts on Alain Vigneault? “You never want to see somebody get fired,” said Hayes. “I came into the league with him and he helped me out a lot.”
Blueshirts’ alternate captain, Mats Zuccarello added on with, “It’s been a tough season for everyone; players and fans … It’s sad (Vigneault being released) but like trading players, it’s a business and it’s not something you can control.”
“Going into next season, we have a lot of young players and we need to have leaders,” continued Zuccarello. “We have to give 100% effort every time we step on the ice. I hope I’m here next season.”
Meanwhile, the longtime face of the franchise, Henrik Lundqvist admitted what many had speculated; the knee which he hurt during last year’s World Championship tournament was never fully healthy.
According to Lundqvist, he banged up the knee in October or November and it was never really right after that. Although, he was quick to point out that it didn’t affect his play.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s looking forward to next season.
“We all know there’s going to be some changes over the summer,” said Lundqvist. “Part of me is a little excited about what’s ahead. I hope we take some good steps in the right direction … We don’t know who’s going to show up, but whoever’s going to be here, we gotta compete and make sure we have a better year. That’s that.”
Henrik especially likes watching the young guys play. “It’s fun to see them,” he said. “The guys came up with great attitudes and worked hard. There’s so much excitement to see how much better we can be.”
In the end, Jesper Fast summed up the team’s current plans perfectly: “All we can do is focus on next season and come back in better shape next year.”