First I would like to apologize for my lack of writing during the Eastern Conference Finals. I was in Florida during games 1-4, then had to make up for a lot of missed work when I returned. I was hoping this 'thoughts' column would be about the Rangers returning to the Stanley Cup, but unfortunately New York was unable to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Seven, and I will instead discuss the upcoming offseason.
1. I find it difficult to understand whether or not I should be disappointed by the season and postseason the Rangers finished Friday night. On the one hand, four years ago I would have been thrilled beyond belief about the Blueshirts making it this far, but on the other the Rangers now have made it to the conference finals three out of the past four seasons with little to show for it.
The trip to the Stanley Cup Final last year was remarkable, and this team was one win away from defending their Eastern Conference title. It is hard to be upset about coming that close and failing, but the team did end up taking a step back rather than a step forward. At some point we must stop settling for 'almost' and start essentially feeling like it is Stanley Cup or bust, as year after year the Rangers come close, but are outlasted by a better team. Henrik Lundqvist is not getting any younger, and if anyone needs a title in professional sports it is him. The Rangers need to get him that Cup.
2. Last season the Rangers had the most complete team in hockey outside of the Los Angeles Kings and perhaps the Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins, though all three could be debated. This season from the very beginning it was clear that the Tampa Bay Lightning had the best roster in hockey. Yes, the Rangers finished ahead of them in the regular season, but there is a reason the Presidents' Trophy winners do not win the Stanley Cup every year.
The issue for the Rangers this postseason was the same as last postseason, the one before that, etc. There were better teams, and the Rangers had to play one of those better teams. The best team in hockey does not always win the Stanley Cup, but they are expected to win until being defeated, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were not defeated.
When the Lightning played their best it was clear that they were the better team, dominating possession play and making the Rangers scramble to even manage shots on net, better yet legitimate scoring chances. The Rangers have struggled to do that, and until they find that perfect blend of talent and luck they will be going home without the Cup.
3. Cannot help but wonder if the Rangers do pull off the series win over the Lightning if Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello were not injured. Not necessarily excuses considering I still believe the Lightning were the better team, but the Rangers came so close it's tough not to consider that factor.
4. Moving ahead the Rangers have a lot of difficult decisions to make, starting with who is making those decisions. Glen Sather has gotten this team to the Conference Finals three out of the past four seasons, but he is also responsible for the disaster Dan Girardi contract, and potential disaster Marc Staal contract. Jeff Gorton would almost certainly replace Sather if the cigar smoking old-geyser was to retire, but that begs the question: how much in favor or against the disaster extension and other poor decisions was Gorton? The grass is not always greener.
5. Mike Murphy wrote a great piece on why the Rangers should not bring back Martin St. Louis, but I would like to expand on it a bit. Mike covered why St. Louis would not fit under the cap for the Rangers, but to me it is not just about salary. Martin St. Louis should not be brought back even if he offers to play for free. (He will not.)
St. Louis requires a top six-top nine spot in the lineup, but is no longer a top six-top nine player. He cannot be moved to the fourth line if he struggles, as he is a defensive liability on the ice as well. A cheap player is great in theory, but a cheap player that does not perform is just a player that is not helping the team. The money leftover is great, but it would be used to fill in the hole that the cheap player is not filling, thus rendering the cheap player still a waste of money.
Notice how Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes became invisible when Martin St. Louis joined their line in the Lightning series, and how Derick Brassard and to a lesser extent Rick Nash picked up their play when St. Louis exited their line. That is not a coincidence, as St. Louis is a possession void that now lacks the speed and skills to make the plays he is known for making.
The Rangers have shown sentimentality in the past bringing back Dan Girardi and Marc Staal rather than getting assets and signing cheaper replacements, but they cannot afford to do the same for Martin St. Louis. His return at any price would be a disaster that sets the team back in a big way. Every time St. Louis is on the ice is a time a contributing player is not on the ice.
6. As for the rest of the team, Dan Girardi, Tanner Glass, and Kevin Klein should not be on the roster next season. The rest can stay, unless they can be moved for more useful assets (Cam Talbot?). Girardi is an albatross that cannot keep up with the top competition, but management and on ice staff believes he can do better than he is capable of, so he plays big minutes and the team suffers because of it. Girardi will almost definitely not move because of his no-movement clause, but if there is any way the Rangers can work around that they absolutely must. The money is needed, and his exit from the roster would be a gain on its own.
Tanner Glass is a useless forward taking up a useful roster spot. Pretty simple call to buy him out for a low price.