The opening game of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final took place in Denver last night. In the not too distant past, it looked like the Rangers would be the ones skating opposite the Colorado Avalanche with the right to hoist the greatest trophy in sports at stake. Holding a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Blueshirts had the back-to-back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in a position they hadn’t been in any of the previous ten playoff series they had emerged victorious from.
From there, it all fell apart. Three dumb penalties from Jacob Trouba and a last minute goal in Game 3 got the Lightning back into the series. A lackluster effort out of the Blueshirts in Game 4 turned the series into a best of three. Another game winning goal against in the final minutes in Game 5 pushed New York to the brink, and aside from 21 seconds of hope in the late stages of Game 6, the Blueshirts appeared resigned to the defeat that awaited them that night.
Within the span of a week, the Rangers went from visions of being the final Eastern Conference team standing to cleaning out their lockers and meeting with the media one final time before going their separate ways. All the work put in since training camp opened in September, all the injuries various members of the team played through, all of it went down the drain in seven days.
The end of the season means the beginning of the post-mortems of the 2021-22 Rangers. On the surface, it looks like it should be nothing but rave reviews. The Blueshirts were never in danger of missing the playoffs, and ended that five year drought. The 52 win, 110 point regular season effort ranks among the best in franchise history, up there with the 1993-94 Stanley Cup winners and the 2014-15 Presidents Trophy winners. They rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the opening round to advance to the Divisional Finals, and overcame an opponent most pundits expected them to crumble against to secure their spot in the final four.
With this playoff appearance being the franchise’s first since their rebuild, there were going to be a cavalcade of platitudes thrown New York’s way no matter when they bowed out of the playoffs. “You have to lose before you learn how to win” is a popular one. “They were ahead of schedule this season, they’ll be back” is another common refrain. All the moral victories and exceeded expectations in the world don’t change the fact that any time a team reaches the point the Rangers did, it’s a missed opportunity.
The 2017 Yankees were not a team people expected much out of when October began that year. A Wild Card game victory installed them as major underdogs in a divisional round series with the 102 win, reigning American League champions from Cleveland. The Yankees turned a 2-0 series deficit into a 3-2 victory to advance to the League Championship Series against the Houston Astros. The Yankees held a 3-2 lead heading back to Houston before eventually losing that series. That was a team that was “ahead of schedule” and needed to lose before learning how to win. Four years later, four more playoff appearances in the books, but at no point have they gotten closer to a World Series than that 3-2 ALCS lead.
Another New York baseball team can be used as a cautionary tale for the Blueshirts. The 2015 Mets didn’t have the regular season success that the Rangers did, but they were a team that exceeded expectations with a World Series appearance on the back of a core of up and coming pitchers. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom all becoming elite starters capable of making the team a regular playoff participant wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. Six years later, the Mets haven’t won a single playoff game since their lone victory in that 2015 World Series.
The Rangers had a lot of things go right this season that in all likelihood, won’t be happening again. Taking into account the team in front of him and the increased scoring around the league, Igor Shesterkin’s body of work in the regular season and playoffs was one of the greatest full season goaltending performances in hockey history. Chris Kreider scored 62 goals between the regular and post season, exactly twice his previous career high of 31. Kreider turned 31 at the onset of the playoffs, and the vast majority of players don’t see upticks in their production on a regular basis moving forward from that age.
Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad accounted for a shade over $7 million during the 2021-22 campaign, and far exceeded that value with their play on the ice. They’ll be taking up $18 million of New York’s cap space next season, so even if the high level of play they bring to the table remains the same, their value drops immensely. There’s growth to be had from the likes of Filip Chytill, K’Andre Miller, and the rest of the Blueshirts’ young players. In spite of that, it’s fair to draw the conclusion that regression from Kreider and Shesterkin, along with the depth questions arising due to the team’s boat load of free agents and limited cap space to replace them, that this could be New York’s high point as a team.
Series Recap Thread: #GoBolts defeat #NoQuitinNY— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 12, 2022
The Rangers' bend-but-don't-quite-break 5v5 play got them within two games of the Cup Final - and in their three games at home they played even til the third period. But ultimately, of course, they broke. pic.twitter.com/6gcIvqVeZH
Are there ways out of this situation? There are, but not ways that one would expect Chris Drury and the rest of New York’s decision makers to explore. Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, and Jacob Trouba are the three most egregious offenders in terms of what they bring to the table vs what they cost to do so, but there’s nothing to indicate they’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.
Reaves is beloved in the locker room, Goodrow was brought in specifically for his championship experience not even a year ago, and Trouba is more likely to be the next team captain than finish the final four years of his contract somewhere else. It’s nearly $14 million in cap space committed to players who might be worth half of that, and it’s an issue that the Rangers willingly boxed themselves into.
The Blueshirts first playoff run with this core was one that gave fans plenty of highlight worthy moments. The comeback against Pittsburgh culminating with a Game 7 overtime winner from Artemiy Panarin. A back and forth second round series that ended with the Rangers blowing the Hurricanes out of their own building in yet another Game 7. “The Shift”, as it’s been dubbed, from the likes of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere that electrified the Madison Square Garden crowd to open the Conference Finals. All of those are great moments that are sure to be piling up YouTube views from Rangerstown residents over the summer and beyond.
Yankees fans still watch highlights from their 2017 playoff run when they need a lift. Same goes for the Mets and their 2015 run. Highlights from a parade down the Canyon of Heroes would be preferable to either of those, and there’s reason to worry that this opportunity could’ve been the Blueshirts’ best for the foreseeable future.