With the Rangers quest for a fifth Stanley Cup falling short, just as it does every spring, takes are flying in from all around the hockey world questioning what could have been, and what’s next for a Rangers’ team with seemingly no direction. With Henrik Lundqvist heading into his age 35 season, time is seemingly running out on Jeff Gorton to assemble a team capable of bringing the best trophy in sports down the Canyon of Heroes. And while that logic may lead you to believe that every season without a Stanley Cup should be considered a failure, this year’s outcome is one of the best possible ones for the boys in blue.
Let’s be realistic for a few moments: Despite being a better team than the Senators, the Rangers were inarguably worse than either of Washington or Pittsburgh. Even with the Penguins running on fumes as of right now, a majority of the same team that laughed New York out of the first round last spring would be on the other side of the ice in a hypothetical Eastern Conference Finals meeting.
On the other hand, if Washington were to have won Game 7 last night and make it to the final four, then the Rangers would be primed to get laughed out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season. The Capitals are a dangerous team once again, with depth contributions coming from the team’s role players, the Caps are getting the one thing that has held them back from true Cup contention throughout the Alexander Ovechkin era. All in all, the Rangers coming back from their 3-2 deficit and squaring off with the true champion of the Metropolitan Division would have only delayed the inevitable.
For that reason, the Ottawa Senators did Jeff Gorton a huge favor by dispatching his rag tag group of players masquerading as a hockey team. Had the team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, Gorton, Alain Vigneault, Glen Sather, and the rest of the team’s decision makers would have an easier time convincing themselves that only minor changes were needed. However, falling to the Senators, in a series that everyone in the hockey world saw as winnable, should serve as the long overdue wake-up call that the organization needs.
Let’s face the facts: This team isn’t going anywhere with Dan Girardi on the roster. The time has come to thank him for his time with the organization, and move on to greener pastures. Despite certain portions of the media praising him for turning back the clock and playing well early in the playoffs, no such thing ever happened. Girardi was the same ineffective, net negative player he’s been for the past handful of years. While a buyout may seem like a harsh measure to take, Jeff Gorton has no other option. He could try to sucker George McPhee into selecting him in the Expansion Draft, but that would require major assets going towards the Golden Knights, and that’s only if Gorton can convince Girardi to waive his burdensome no-movement clause, so the odds of that are slim to none.
And it’s not just Dan Girardi. Marc Staal is just as much of an issue as Girardi at this point. While teams around the league may not have soured on his reputation as much, it doesn’t change the fact that he is anchoring the Blueshirts defensive corps from reaching its true potential. A left side composed of Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and either Brendan Smith or somebody out of the bargain could be on of the NHL’s best units next season. Marc Staal stands as a roadblock between the team and a respectable group of defenseman.
Even beyond those two players, other issues have held the team back. Tanner Glass cannot be in the organization in any capacity next season. While the temptation to extend the rugged winger after a semi-respectable playoff showing may be tempting, Jeff Gorton must resist the urge to bring back on of the league’s worst players. A fourth line consisting of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg, and a call-up or under-the-radar free agent signing is effective enough to let New York’s high powered Top 9 do their thing.
Speaking of their Top 9, the team can ill-afford to move one of their high-end forwards for the sake of change. If moving Derek Stepan, or Rick Nash allows the team to bring in an impact player on the back end, or somehow improve the forward corps, than by all means pull the trigger on a deal. But if Stepan and Nash are worth as little as some think they are, then the Rangers wouldn’t be able to acquire players to move the needle enough to push the team back into contention without adding other assets to a trade, and that isn’t something the Rangers can do in good faith.
All in all, the Rangers need to redefine what their “core” is if they want a ghost of a chance at bring home the Stanley Cup before their window is slammed shut. A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, despite how enjoyable it would be as it happens, would do nothing positive for the franchise.
Alain Vigneault said last spring represented a final kick at the can for last year’s group. That turned out to be a lie. And it’s one that that Vigneault, Gorton, and the rest of the team can ill afford to say again.