Stamford, CT: Much like the finale of Ozark, it was a disappointing end to a solid season for the New York Rangers. After a few days to process, the common refrain seems to be “hey, they exceeded expectations, it’s a young team, and the future is bright.” Fair enough. But it’s still hard to get past the 2-0 series lead and a 2-0 lead in Game 3. The do have some great pieces in place, but they have some tough decisions to make and not a lot of cap room to operate. Let’s take a look at some of the issues they’ll be wrestling with this summer.
Fitting in the Kids
Obvi, the postseason would have ended much sooner if not for the emergence of the “kid line.” These three young studs can no longer languish on the third line and need top six minutes. But how that happens is difficult to sort out.
Alexis Lafrenière has shown signs of being a star, but he needs to big minutes to grow. The problem is that he prefers left wing and his path is on that side is blocked by Kreider and Panarin. It’s a tough one.
Kappo Kaako has the clearest path to playing time as he plays the right wing and that side is open. But the surprise scratch in Game 6 was eye opening and there is talk that he will be moved. He also may be vulnerable to an offer sheet, as he is an RFA, if the Rangers can’t sign him to a bridge deal. His strength of holding on to the puck showed itself in a few key moments this post season with beautiful behind-the-net feeds to Chytil and Laffy. But he also holds on to it too much at times, passing up good shots looking to make the perfect play.
Filip Chytil. The center elevated his stock more than any other Ranger in the playoffs, but opinions vary as to whether he’s ready to make the leap to second line center. How they feel about Fil will dictate how they attack free agency.
One option would be to slide Kreider over to the right, put Mika, Bread, and Kreider together and keep the kids together. That’s probably unlikely, but it would be fun. The Rangers also just brought back Vitaly Kravtsov, so there is another kid RW in the mix for top six minutes.
The Deadline Acquisitions
Andrew Copp is the one most likely guy to be brought back, I reckon. His versatility and defensive prowess are major attributes. And if Chytil is given a shot at 2C and does not perform, Copp could step in.
Frank Vatrano is probably gone, especially if they keep Copp. He’s a nice little player with speed and a wicked wrister, but someone else is likely to offer him more than the Rangers can pay.
Tyler Motte is a useful player who I’d love to see stick around. But he would probably have to take less money. They have kind of a poor man’s Motte in Johnny Brodzinski, so Motte might not be back.
Ryan Braun definitely won’t be back.
Stromer and the Other Unrestricted Free Agents
The indelible image of the Lightning series to me will be Ryan Strome over-skating the tap in that would have given the Rangers the lead late in pivotal Game 5. Combined with his lack of production in the playoffs, the Rangers are likely to move on and seek an upgrade at 2C.
Rooney and Greg McKegg are depth players about to turn 30 that might be gone as well. Alexandar Georgiev is surely going to look for a team without the best goalie in the league on the roster.
Bright Blue Line
The Rangers are looking good on D with the core four of Fox, Lindgren, Miller, and Trouba. Trouba is probably the least valuable at this point, in spite of his big contract and big hits. He’s definitely overpaid at eight million and was the guy that let Stamkos get behind him for the series winning goal in Game 6. Miller and Lindgren both had their stock rise in the playoffs.
The action will be on the third pair. Braden Schneider is a keeper but needs a new partner. Hopefully they can find someone to take Nemeth off their hands or they should glue him to the bench for emergency use only. I would like to see them ride or die with Schneider and Zac Jones. That’s a dynamic young pair that could grow together. You’ve got an offensive minded skater in the lefty Jones and a hard nosed defensive minded righty in Schneider. Matthew Robertson and Nils Lundqvist are in the wings as well.
Grinders vs Skill
On the surface, it looks like Dolan’s tantrum in firing JD and Gorton last year and insisting on tougher players paid off. The team made a surprise run to the conference finals, after all. But some pretty brutal possession numbers and advanced metrics are indicative of a team that was too reliant on special teams and a superstar goalie. To get to the upper eschelon, they need to get better at holding on to the puck. In all three playoff series, the Rangers were pinned in their own zone far too often.
The Bottom Six
Let’s say for now that Kappo moves up to Vatrano’s spot on the top line and Copp is re-signed and put on a line with Chytil and Panarin. That leaves Lafrenière, Goodrow, Reaves, Dryden Hunt as the remaining forwards under contract on the roster. Sammy Blais, Julien Gauthier and the aforementioned KK are RFAs. They will probably try to bring back Blais or the Buchnevich trade looks even worse. Brodzinski is under contract and has a good shoot at a bottom six role as well.
Their objective should be to try to find cheap options to fill out the rest of the roster with guys who can possess the puck and have a little sandpaper to their game. I know, everyone wants guys like that, but still.
Igor the Great
This guy was phenomenal in the playoffs and is clearly their most important player. No one gets across like he does. He reads the play so well and exudes calm confidence. They need to find a reliable backup and do what it takes to keep this guy happy.
They’re not in great cap shape thanks to big money to Trouba, Fox, Kreider, Mika, and Panarin. Cap Friendly has them with about $13.5 million available before the Kravtsov signing. That will be eaten up by Copp (or someone similar), Kappo, a backup goalie and filling out the bottom six. They still have one more year and $3.5 million of dead money hits for Shattenkirk, Girardi, and Deangelo, but they are clear of dead money next season.
It was a great run, shame it had to end. The Rangers have a very good core but I don’t think you can pencil them in to the playoffs for the next five seasons. They have some work to do to take the team to the next level.