Elimination Eval: New York Rangers

It should go without saying that this is an article I was hoping I wouldn’t have to write. For the second time in the last three years, the New York Rangers fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals. What makes this run different (and more painful) than their last one is the expectations. 2022 came as a bit of a pleasant surprise while this year, this team was on a mission to not only get back to the playoffs, but to go all the way. And frankly, they were one of the favorites to do so. For once it wasn’t just Rangers fans that saw the potential in this group, the league as a whole really believed they had what it takes and of course all of the 1994 comparisons didn’t help. Alas, it’s back to the drawing board as the clock continues to tick for this core. 

Round 1 the Rangers got off to a relatively ideal and expected start. They made true light work of an aging Washington Capitals team on the precipice of a retool that really was just happy to be in the playoff picture. Looking back at it, Game 1 was not only their most dominant victory in terms of goal differential but quite the wild way to start a playoff series. There’s always that mix of anxiety and excitement regarding who would be the first to score in the playoffs and of course who would it be for the Rangers? The guy you least expected or perhaps expected the most, folk hero Matthew Rempe. There’s plenty to unpack regarding the newest fan favorite on the Rangers but before we have any of those conversations, I truly urge all of you reading this to stop overthinking his role and just be happy for the storybook of a year this kid had in his NHL debut. It’s unfathomable to me if you can’t. 

Moving right along, things were looking great in New York. The Rangers were getting goals from their top guys, K’Andre Miller had an outstanding shorthanded goal, the power play was cooking, they looked like the team of destiny we were all expecting them to be. You even had Artemiy Panarin throwing big hits that stirred up controversy which is a night and day comparison to his efforts against Florida by the end of the playoff run. Nevertheless, the Rangers were off to Washington with a 2-0 lead in the series. 

Special teams continued to dictate the series, both on the power play and the penalty kill. Not only were the Rangers scoring goals with the man advantage but they were converting shorthanded on top of it. When things are going right, it’s hard to be critical but perhaps the goalscoring at even strength conversations were still valid through Round 1 and will undoubtedly be a hot topic again this summer. Game 4 got off to an exuberant start with Kaapo Kakko forcing a turnover to make it 1-0 within the first minute but Washington wouldn’t go down without a fight. On top of that, there was a huge concern late in the period with arguably the team’s most valuable player. 

A brutal knee-on-knee collision from Nick Jensen left Adam Fox in great distress which was especially concerning given an injury suffered earlier in the season on a similar hit. Thankfully, Fox seemed to be okay but it became evident as the playoff run continued that he was not playing anywhere close to 100%. Fox admitted during the infamous breakup day interviews that the collision indeed “reaggravated” the knee injury he suffered earlier in the season. He noted it wasn’t an excuse as he was able to play but you have to imagine things would have been different for him had that collision not occurred.

The Rangers got a power play out of that and Fox was able to help them convert which prompted a hissy-fit from Tom Wilson. Through no avail, Washington couldn’t find a way back and the Rangers completed the sweep. We saw how burnt out this group was towards the end of their 2022 run so the extra time off between Rounds 1 and 2 would prove critical to what they were hoping to achieve this year, especially with a banged up Adam Fox. 

Round 2 would be less of a walk in the park but still worked out in the Rangers favor as they once again threatened a sweep after three games. This time, against a far stronger team in the Carolina Hurricanes. All three games were one goal games with two of them requiring at least one period of overtime. Not the most ideal way to navigate a series, having to play so much extra hockey. However, it was encouraging in the sense that this team built some confidence when the game came down to “next goal wins.” Much of that “no quit”, find a way to win mentality was becoming omnipresent at the right time. 

Game 4 almost brought on the third overtime in a row for this series but a late goal from Brady Skjei gave Carolina the edge to fight off the sweep. The Rangers followed that up with one of their most lifeless efforts in Game 5 but a legacy game from Chris Kreider finished off the series in six games. Despite the strong start, there were plenty of concerns across the back half. As noted earlier, Fox was looking like a shell of his former self, Zibanejad and Panarin were falling by the wayside, Jacob Trouba and Erik Gustafsson were becoming true liabilities on the back end. Even Trocheck, who probably finishes right behind Shesterkin and Lafrenière as the team’s top playoff performer, had slowed down a bit. 

It’s times like these where the saying “winning solves everything” becomes so obvious. Even through the struggles towards the end of Round 2 the Rangers were right on track in terms of where they should be at this point. They had plenty of time to rest following the end of the first round, they took care of the Hurricanes in less than seven games, surely they wouldn’t hit a wall like they did in 2022… 

Sigh, a bit of a rude awakening to start Round 3 as the Rangers left the World’s Most Famous silent after a scoreless Game 1. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t stressed with the outcome of that game at all. Sure they got shutout but something about how the game was played left a sort of unsatisfactory feeling. Like you knew the chances of them having a strong bounce back were pretty good and sure enough, the Rangers followed it up with a pair of wins, once again in overtime. Florida’s exhausting style of shutdown hockey matched with Shesterkin’s brilliance kept Game 2 locked at 1-1 and a jaw dropping wrist shot from Barclay Goodrow put an end to it, tying up the series. Game 3 would be similar albeit with a much higher goal tally and Alex Wennberg finding his first of the post season to be the hero. 

Bouncing back from a Game 1 loss with a pair of overtime wins was without question the high point for the Rangers playoff run save for the big Kreider game in Carolina. Game 4 would prove to be a defining moment in the series and unfortunately, that’s where the Rangers magic began to run out. A third consecutive game of overtime playoff hockey was put to an early end following a costly mistake from Mika Zibanejad. Sure it was the Blake Wheeler penalty that gave Florida that power play, but that penalty never happens if Mika doesn’t make that mindless pass destined to be a turnover. The Panthers would even up the series on a Sam Reinhart power play goal and the Rangers wouldn’t win another game. 

It can’t be overstate how badly the Rangers top players let this team down, especially their goaltender who was frankly the main reason they were able to compete with Florida in the slightest. While Kreider single handedly carried the Rangers through the storm of Round 2, he only scored once (shorthanded) in the Conference Final. Zibanejad, had the biggest “what if” moment when he tickled the crossbar with a bouncing puck but otherwise, did not convert in the Conference Final. Artemiy Panarin was pretty close to a non-factor in the series save for his garbage time goal in the final game of the playoffs. Jacob Trouba went from big scary Captain to the team’s worst defenseman in the blink of an eye. Lots of serious concerns that added up at the worst time. 

On the bright side, Igor Shesterkin had one of his best showings as a New York Ranger and he’s had some pretty remarkable stretches across his early tenure. Alexis Lafrenière took a massive step forward putting all the bust nonsense right to bed. Vincent Trocheck not only proved to be one of the most reliable players on the team, but a true leader through the good, bad and ugly. Will Cuylle and Braden Schneider. While they wouldn’t convert much on the scoresheet, they got valuable experience in their respective roles with this team that will only help them bring more to the table in the coming seasons. The same could be said for Matt Rempe who will look to come into next season as a mainstay fourth liner alongside Barclay Goodrow who had six goals across the postseason, two more than his 82 game total for the year. Lastly, an honorable mention to Filip Chytil for making a comeback after everything he’s dealt with this season. 

Although there’s no sugar coating it, this season was and has to be viewed as a failure by the New York Rangers. Was it a great season? Absolutely. A record breaking regular season filled with numerous special moments but all of that went right down the drain the second that final buzzer of Game 6 sounded. It’s evident this team’s goal is a Stanley Cup. It’s becoming scarily clear that the window for this team isn’t opening any wider. By not even making it to the Cup final, going as far as you did two seasons ago, it’s not exactly a step in the right direction. Last season, we saw the best “on paper” Rangers team we’ll probably ever see and they didn’t get it done. This year was the best New York Rangers team we probably have ever seen and they didn’t get it done. What is it going to take? What happens now? 

The biggest question for the New York Rangers this summer will be regarding their Captain, Jacob Trouba. I’m not going to harp on the guy any more than this fan base already has but there’s no way around it, he had one of the most disappointing playoff performances we’ve seen in quite some time. We now know that a part of that may have to deal with the fact that he suffered a badly broken ankle earlier in the season but he did make it a point to say that it was no longer affecting his game. If that’s actually the case then why is he just all of a sudden incapable of being the player he once was? 

Specifically, the big question will be if this lackluster playoff showing is enough to warrant a change or will the now veteran defenseman get the benefit of the doubt? Frankly, we have to be realistic about this, it’s extremely unlikely the Rangers move their Captain who has an AAV of $8 million. However… he has two years left in his contract and his trade restriction opens up to 17 teams. Him being untradeable isn’t out of the realm of possibility but you have to imagine the team and the organization still value him for the same reasons they always have. Hopefully he’s able to recoup over the summer and can thrive on the third pairing with Zac Jones to start next season.  

As far as other orders of business, the Rangers have six noteworthy UFA’s, 3 RFA’s and roughly $11.3 million in projected cap space. Braden Schneider, Ryan Lindgren and Kaapo Kakko will become restricted free agents. Alexander Wennberg, Jack Roslovic, Erik Gustafsson, Blake Wheeler, Chad Ruhwedel, and Tyler Pitlick will become unrestricted free agents. Frankly, I don’t expect any of the UFA’s to return. Erik Gustafsson was rather underwhelming in the playoffs, Blake Wheeler’s coming off too serious of an injury to justify a roster spot and is considering retirement. Wennberg and Roslovic will make more money in the open market although Wennberg seems to have interest in sticking around. They could re-up Ruwedel to be the seventh or eighth defenseman next season but Chris Drury’s off-season work will likely focus around the team’s three key RFA’s. 

Now there's already been massive debates on what should be done with these RFA’s, specifically Kakko and Lindgren. We’re going to have much larger conversations regarding those three and what their next contracts should look like, if they should stay in New York at all so with that in mind, I’m not going to get too deep into specifics. The short answer from me is all three of them should return to New York next season and at least two of them are extremely likely to.  

Braden Schneider has leapfrogged Trouba in the defensive depth charts. It’s tough to estimate how much cap space he could require and the term associated with it but I’m definitely leaning towards paying him a reasonable amount to get him under contract for give or take another six years. It could be wise to sign him to a cheaper bridge deal given the big picture of the salary cap but there’s value in something longer term if the price tag stays low enough. 

A great deal of folks are weary of giving Lindgren a long term contract in fear that he will turn into another Dan Girardi or Marc Staal. I certainly get those concerns but don’t see the point in rushing him out of town unless there’s a trade that really makes sense for the Rangers. The realistic scenario is a two-year bridge for a little more than he makes now but if it were up to me, I would entertain something in the $5 million x 5 year range. 

Lastly, Kaapo Kakko. I put out a tweet over the weekend about how next season might need to be the official put up or shut up year for him. Naturally a lot of people did not take kindly to that but it bears repeating; Kaapo Kakko is a RFA with a very reasonable qualifying offer. ($2.4 m) Unless you move Trouba, Goodrow or other pieces to clear up a ton of cap space, you are not going to have the budget to sign anyone worthwhile in the open market. Now given his candid responses on locker cleanout day, I wouldn’t be shocked if he requests a trade in the offseason nor would I blame him or his agent. Although, I’m hopeful he’s willing to stick around for at least another year that way you could say you gave him one last proper chance, hopefully without injuries, and you could include him in a potential deadline trade package if need be. 

Again, him being a healthy scratch in the midst of the Conference Finals for the second time under an entirely new coaching staff was likely the final nail in the coffin. However, unless the Rangers find something via trade or free agency with the precious cap space they’ll have left over, I don’t see any other option aside from starting the year with Kakko in the top-six. Not only would that help the Rangers in the short term, but it’s likely in Kakko’s best interest in terms of regaining some of his value. 

Under the assumption that the Rangers don’t have the cap space to add a player capable of being a top-six right winger, the next option would be either forcing Will Cuylle to his off hand (interesting) or significantly promoting Brennan Othmann or Brett Berard. Both of which would be better suited to ease into the NHL in a third line role. So if you keep Kakko for another year and give him 15-20 uninterrupted games in the top-six, you’re not only giving him that last proper chance, but you’re buying your younger guys time, better preparing them to potentially steal that job. And I know Kakko’s had chances. We can have larger conversations about that over the summer but the kid is 23 years old, this isn’t his ceiling. 

By that logic, it could be a very underwhelming summer for the Rangers. If you bring back the three RFA’s and don’t make any other moves, they have a full roster to run it back with. One that should be solid enough to keep them in a top three position in their division:

Kreider - Zibanejad - Kakko or Panarin - Zibanejad - Lafreniere

Panarin - Trocheck - Lafrenière or Kreider - Trocheck - Kakko

Cuylle - Chytil - Othmann

Goodrow - Edstrӧm - Rempe

Vesey - Brodzinski 

Lindgren - Fox 

Miller - Schneider

Jones - Trouba


Now I know this likely isn’t the answer many people are hoping for and I get it. I’m just as frustrated a fan as anyone. However, this group is at least one more year away from considering tearing the whole thing down and starting over again. The Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports. It’s not supposed to be easy and that’s a part of why the Rangers lost. They ran into a team that was neck and neck with them in skill but played a style of hockey better suited for the playoffs. Simple as that. They didn’t give up, although they absolutely should have shown more urgency at times. They got zero help from the officials and couldn’t manage any puck luck whatsoever. Those aren’t things you can rely on and let me be clear, are NOT excuses, but it does add to the bigger picture, at least a little bit. As much as it sucks to hear or say, the better team won the series and now the Rangers need to prepare to have an answer for that. 

Chris Drury may have learned a tough lesson at this year's trade deadline regarding the proper time to go all in. We don’t know for sure how close the Rangers were to landing Jake Guentzel but if the unwillingness to move on from Kakko was the reason that trade didn’t go down, that’s a major mistake. If we’re playing revisionist history, perhaps the real mistake dates back to trading Pavel Buchnevich, the only winger proven capable of playing with Zibanejad and Kreider. The fact of the matter is, Drury has to go into next year's deadline as aggressively as possible because if we’re having these same conversations a year from now, things are going to get ugly real fast. 

Trouba will enter the final year of his contract as will Panarin. Both Shesterkin and Lafrenière are eligible to sign extensions beginning this summer and will (hopefully) be in the first year of new contracts that will eat up a massive portion of the salary cap. This team as it’s currently constructed could only have one more year left in this window before they’re forced to open another one. They are set up for longer term success with younger players like Othmann and Berard as well as Adam Sykora and other prospects. All of which are capable of being middle-six wingers. Edström and Rempe could be long term fixtures on the fourth line, Will Cuylle has a bright future not to mention the fact that you still have Fox, Lafrenière, Miller, Schneider and hopefully a healthy Chytil to continue building around. 

To top that off, you have an extremely exciting name in Gabe Perreault who barring any groundbreaking trade scenario, should be untouchable. As long as this team can get Shesterkin locked up long term, the pieces are always going to be there for them to run it back, it’s just a matter of all the stars aligning and this team’s stars actually showing up and being that throughout the playoffs. I’m going to wrap it up here as we have an entire off-season of addressing these stories but I will end with this. 

I know the feelings are mostly doom and gloom after another failed run at the Cup but we know this team is right there. No one is more exhausted of saying there’s always next year than I am. It’s time for this team to get it done and next season could be this core (as we know it’s) final chance to do so.