It's difficult to stomach any steps back when it comes to building on previous successes. The Rangers fell only three wins shy of hoisting the Stanley Cup this season, and with largely the same cast of characters, expectations will be quite high entering Alain Vigneault's second season at the helm.
The situation is very reminiscent of 2012.
That season, the Rangers unexpectedly—from a number of standpoints—nearly climbed to hockey's pinnacle. That Rangers team was quite young, with an average age of 26, but that group still managed to rack up the most points in the East, and nearly made it to the Cup Final. It was a season that accelerated the timeframe for a group that wasn't supposed to compete or be a contender for a few seasons.
And that offseason reflected that shift in expectations. The Rangers sacrificed some youth and depth in the form of top-end talent by acquiring Rick Nash. In no way is this an audit of that move, which brought a premier player to the Rangers. It's a trade you make 10 out of 10 times. And Nash has obliged by being rather good.
Since that blockbuster trade, and since the Rangers forged ahead with much of that young nucleus, while incorporating some other key players, they've inched closer to hockey' grandest prize, but haven't snatched it just yet. And again, with the team having come so close, and the two decade gap between when the Rangers last led a ticker-tape parade through New York's streets, every passing season brings with it 82-plus games of anxiety, and those aforementioned steps backwards are not easy to swallow.
But keeping an eye on the big picture is more important, most important in fact. And the Rangers landscape in the coming years is looking quite bright.
The other two major similarities between this past season and 2012 was the light at the end of the tunnel was being blocked by an abundantly better Western Conference team. The Kings lifted the Cup in both of those seasons, and entering both of those series—against the Rangers a few months ago, and against either the Rangers or Devils two years ago—Los Angeles was clearly a few cuts above. Of course, it's more enjoyable, and more beneficial for the team to gain that deep postseason experience, but a Ranger win in either case would have been a major upset.
And neither of those Rangers teams—nor a single one since the 2005 lockout—has truly been good enough to win a championship.
This is where the big picture, and not becoming frustrated with a lack of tangible improvement comes in.
The only way the Rangers can truly build upon what the team accomplished last season is to win the 2015 Stanley Cup. And it's entirely possible; heck, anything is possible. The Eastern Conference isn't filled with powerhouses, and the Rangers could again find themselves in hockey's last two teams standing. But just as was the case this June, should the Rangers go up against the likes of a Chicago, or a Los Angeles, or a few other teams in from the West, they'll be overmatched.
And this is where a measured approach and an patience comes to the forefront.
More on the future
More on the future
If you've been following the world junior camps that have been going on this past week, you've heard time and time again about the caliber of Pavel Bucnevich and Anthony Duclair. Brady Skjei is another top-end prospect who's name would be in the conversation if he hadn't aged out of this tournament. And because for some reason it needs to be said, J.T. Miller is only 21 years old. He's only a year older than Skjei, and yes, the potential is there.
This group is the future, but the future isn't this upcoming season.
The Rangers are set up for future success. Aside from that group of youngsters who have yet to become NHL stalwarts, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan will be entering their primes in two or so years, as will Ryan McDonagh. Henrik Lundqvist should still be playing at a very high level, while Nash's scoring hasn't tailed off yet.
So 2015 could turn into the perfect storm for New York Rangers hockey.
Rangers brass tried to convince Skjei this offseason to turn pro. It's probably no coincidence the Rangers had five sure fire, lineup defensemen through all of this, as if Glen Sather could have pouched Skjei, it would have been a major coup, and Skjei probably could make the NHL jump right now. Duclair has shown he can clearly score in the QMJHL, and plenty of players have made the transition straight from major juniors to the show. Bucnevich will get out of his KHL contract in a year, and odds are Miller will get plenty of chances to carve out a spot on the depth chart this season.
This isn't a plea for the Rangers to punt this season. But the teams on-again, off-again deep postseason runs in the midst of identifying and acquiring organizational depth has been a very peculiar holding pattern. That 2011-12 team over-exceeded, while it was expected to be better in the following years.
Categorizing the expectations for the 2013-14 Rangers is a bit foggier. It was more or less the same team that fizzled out in the second round a year prior to the Bruins, and seemed like a no-doubt postseason club, but not better than the likes of Boston or the Penguins. That was probably the case, and then the team got hot at the right time. And the team virtually stands in the same place this season, if not a few steps back, while the rest of the East is catching up.
And that likely will hurt the Rangers this season when it comes to the expectations from fans. If there is an ETA right now for when this franchise will truly have all of the pieces to not just be "another good team in the mix," 2015-16 seems like an excellent starting point.
There's no reason to go into this season hopeless with regards to the Rangers prospects, but its worth noting their major prospects—in the literal and physical sense—are on the way.