After another season conclusion in playoff heartbreak followed by a productive offseason retooling, the New York Rangers are set to embark on another 82-part campaign with the tools to still keep air blowing through the window.
The New York Rangers found yet another way to end their narrative too soon in their 2016-17 campaign. After a hard-fought first round playoff series victory, they advanced only to shoot themselves in the foot in the second round.
One year ago, the New York Rangers came out of the gates hot and silenced everyone early on who thought they would not be a playoff contender once again.
They set the precedent as a top team in the incredibly competitive Metropolitan Division and stayed there all season while ending the year with a respectable 102 points.
It seemed like they finally struck the perfect formula. A team with the perfect mix of seasoned veterans and rising young studs all of whom were coming together to bring a cup to New York once and for all.
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Unlike the season prior, where they held on to the third spot in the division only to be punished in the first round against the eventual two-time Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, who smoked them in five, the Rangers settled for fourth while taking the Wild Card position and setting themselves up in the friendlier Atlantic Division bracket.
This was what seemed to be the perfect scenario – dominate the Atlantic division in the first two rounds and then save dealing with Pittsburgh for the conference final, where it would be more reasonable to lose to them, while still at that point anything could happen.
As exciting of a route this was, we all know what subsequently happened. The Rangers found yet another way to not win a Stanley Cup and fell in the frustrating six-game series loss to Ottawa, a series that could have been won in five thanks to giving up numerous big leads.
After the final horn sounded at Madison Square Garden on May 9, we could only ask ourselves what could possibly be next.
After all of these failed playoff runs time and time again, what could possibly be left in the gas tank? What more can one man in a set of goalie pads do for a city? Has the window really closed once and for all? There are only so many second chances that can be granted.
In the last six seasons, we have seen this team lose their Stanley Cup opportunity in every way imaginable. We have seen first, second and third round exits accompanied by a cup final defeat all within that span of seasons and in the last 12 for that matter.
Memories of overtimes ending by the sticks of Adam Henrique and Alex Martinez, a failed shootout move by Olli Jokinen, some kid we didn’t know named Torey Krug, a Ben Bishop shutout and a four-goal game from Jean Gabriel Pageau are the horror stories we have been rewarded with for eight-month-long investments, all ending in tears of pain as opposed to joy.
All of them unique chapters inside the thick book of short stories titled, “How it is Possible that Henrik Lundqvist Still Doesn’t Have a Stanley Cup.”
Our questions of what was to come after last season’s conclusion started to be answered as we progressed through what was a rather fruitful offseason.
For starters, the biggest problem in the Rangers lineup was not having a puck-moving defenseman that can produce consistent offense and help run a power play. In fact, their entire defensive core needed to be revamped due to having aging players.
General Manager Jeff Gorton weeded out the dead weight and filled in the lineup gaps all while being cost efficient.
He started by doing the inevitable in buying out the contract of the long-time Ranger defenseman, Dan Girardi.
This was a move I think we all expected as while Girardi was so valuable for many years, his age caught up to him after a career of using his body to block pucks. Unfortunately, he was hardly a top six defenseman anymore and buying him out was the first step in the right direction.
This was followed by a blockbuster move that sent the Rangers No. 1 center, Derek Stepan, and backup goaltender, Anti Raanta, to the Arizona Coyotes for the seventh overall pick in the NHL Draft and young defenseman, Anthony DeAngelo.
The Rangers used this pick to select the 18-year-old Swedish center in Lias Andersson, a two-way player maker with a lot of upside. The Rangers then used their second first round pick to select another center in 19-year-old Czech Republican, Filip Chytil, a player who can produce high-octane offense.
Both of these selections were compensating for the loss of Stepan in the Rangers’ future down the middle, while DeAngelo was a first round selection from 2014 who has major upside in being the type of defenseman the Rangers need on the power play.
The Stepan/ Raanta deal also granted Gorton more cap space to work with that allowed him to make the biggest free agent splash of the offseason by signing the highly coveted defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk.
Shattenkirk was given offers by a majority of the league, some more lucrative than the Rangers, but he unselfishly chose New York due to growing up a Rangers fan and realizing that wherever he signed next would be where he would spend the remainder of his prime. So he crossed off wearing blue on his bucket list.
Shattenkirk is entering his ninth NHL season as a revered defenseman who can produce offense at a top-notch level.
This officially solved the issue on defense and completed a very solid top four in Ryan McDonagh paired alongside Shattenkirk, while the breakout talent in Brady Skjei and the newly resigned Brendan Smith make up the second pair.
Head Coach Alain Vigneault will have plenty of toys to play with on his blue line this season. The complaints about the defense should officially be silenced.
As for other offseason additions and departures, center Oscar Lindberg was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft, which was compensated for when the Rangers signed veteran center David Desharnais later on to give some balance to the bottom six.
Former Winnipeg Jets starting goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec, was signed to a one-year deal as the new backup in replacement of Raanta. I see it as if he handled 60-70 games not so long ago, 30-40 should not be a problem and he should be serviceable in giving Lundqvist extra rest.
Defenseman Kevin Klein retired and forward Tanner Glass was cut loose as another Massachusetts native was added in former Capital forward Paul Carey, who will be a solid depth guy.
The Rangers once again somehow pulled off maintaining a competitive lineup in another offseason and give New York another season to feel excited about. That’s the perks of the market in the Big Apple.
Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes will feel the pressure to step up as the number one and two centers respectively. Both of them are cracking the primes of their career and should be locked in for career high seasons.
As for who the fourth center will be, it seems as though the Rangers have decided to go with the 21st overall pick in Chytil, as he proved himself worthy in the preseason, while Andersson was sent back to Sweden to hone his skills in the SHL.
The play of the Rangers’ centers will be a heavy factor for their fate to come this season.
Of course, all of this will once again be supported by who other than the ageless Lundqvist. The man who has made a majority of the last decade’s triumphs possible will once again start from square one and try to take yet another crack at a cup.
At 35 years old, Lundqvist’s (as well of the rest of the team’s for that matter) time is now. Jeff Gorton seems to have salvaged some more time in the windows journey shutting against the sill, and the team must capitalize.
Rick Nash, who is now 33 years-old, is playing for a contract and there is no time to take any back seats. He must access his scoring ways by creating the opportunities for himself that he is known for at a consistent rate.
Big things are also expected from players now settling into their primes such as the newly assigned assistant captain, Mats Zuccarello, as well as Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller, who have each had increasingly successful seasons.
So as we head into another season of possibilities, what can we now expect this time around?
I think the Rangers are without question a playoff team. They are plagued with being a member of what will once again be a fierce Metropolitan division, but they should actually fair rather well, if not better than last season given some lineup changes to their neighbors.
My prediction is the Rangers will finish second in the Metropolitan division and make it to at least the second round. What happens from there can go anyway as we have learned from the past.
With a new set of high hopes in store, how will this chapter end? Will it be more of the same? Or will it be the euphoria we have been so desperately searching for? It’s up to you New York.