Ruminating on the Rangers’ Season

As anyone who has read a decent sampling of my articles here (or has been subjected to my presence for more than five minutes) would know, I enjoy getting into the statistical weeds when it comes to the New York Rangers. But now, with their entertaining 2021-22 season having come to an end, I am, perhaps only naturally, thinking about things in a more reflective and big-picture fashion. So, thank you in advance for reading through my meandering thoughts on what is, at the end of the day, a fan blog.

As the final seconds of the Rangers’ season ticked away on Saturday night, I found myself feeling a bit disappointed, of course, but otherwise strangely neutral, or at least lacking in the truly strong emotions that came with the team’s eliminations in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, for instance.

Having been able to ruminate on it for a little while now, perhaps that’s a product of the Rangers’ Eastern Conference Final demise at the hands of the proven champion Tampa Bay Lightning carrying with it opposing feelings of gratitude for the unexpected run that was, and disappointment with how New York squandered an opportunity and ultimately did not put its best foot forward in what turned out to be the final game of the season. So I’m still struggling to process it all and know how to feel.

Put more simply, the Rangers had an outstanding season from a macro standpoint, and a disappointing finish from a micro standpoint, so reconciling those feelings is no easy task. The macro view? This team, which had not qualified for the playoffs since 2016-17 (I’m not counting that 2020 COVID-induced qualifier round), had an awesome run, exceeding the expectation of just qualifying for the playoffs. As the Blueshirts had shown some signs of progress in the past couple of seasons, a postseason appearance seemed to be the goal coming into this season — especially following the shocking firings of former team president John Davidson and former general manager Jeff Gorton toward the end of the 2020-21 campaign, and the less-shocking firing of head coach David Quinn soon thereafter.

Macro View: Good Vibes

What followed in Gerard Gallant’s first year behind the Rangers’ bench was a 110-point season that featured one of the best individual goaltending years in the history of the league, a fan-favorite player exploding for a 52-goal campaign that always felt possible in his younger days but eventually seemed to become only a dream of yesteryear, that same player forming one half of the best bromance in the league, K’Andre Miller growing into a beast of a defenseman, and many more individually compelling storylines that combined to form a hockey team that truly lived up to its “No Quit in New York” motto.

Sure, their five-on-five play was, well, underwhelming for most of the season. But between Igor Shesterkin’s MVP-level performance, a lethal power play, some savvy trade-deadline acquisitions, and of course, elite vibes, the ride was undeniably enjoyable.

By the time the playoffs rolled around and a first-round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins was set, expectations had changed. The Rangers seemed poised to win a round, but still, anything after that felt like it would be gravy.

Of course, the Rangers got down 3-1 in the series against the Penguins, looking completely lost in Games 3 and 4 along the way. A comeback did not seem viable with the way the series was going — the Penguins dominating territorially and Shesterkin not playing at his elite standard to negate that. I thought back to 2005-06 — the first post-lockout season where the Rangers defied all expectations and made the playoffs with 100 points, only to get swept by their hated rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in an uncompetitive series. I.e., this was a great season that was about to come to a brutal, unfitting conclusion.

But, sparked by the Kid Line of Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko, the Rangers rallied from a 2-0 deficit in Game 5 to force a Game 6 back in Pittsburgh. Looking dead in the water and trailing 2-0 again in that game, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider finally emerged and delivered clutch performances to help send the series back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7. That game was another struggle, but the “No Quit” Rangers rallied once again, tying the game late on another Zibanejad goal before a seemingly less-than-100-percent-version of Artemiy Panarin won the series with a power-play goal in overtime. At that point, I started to feel like this team had some magic.

The next series against the Carolina Hurricanes appeared to be a nightmarish matchup on paper, with the division-winning Canes having manhandled the Rangers for most of the season. I myself picked the Rangers to lose in six games. But the resilient Rangers rallied from another two-game deficit, eventually forcing another Game 7 — this one on the road — and exploding for six goals in that game to eliminate Carolina. Having secured such a surprising upset, it was easy to think that this team’s magic could take them all the way to the Stanley Cup.

The Rangers rode that high into a 2-0 series lead against the rusty Lightning, and a 2-0 lead in Game 3 on the road, before everything took a turn for the worse. With the Lightning on the ropes, the Rangers couldn’t deliver the final blow, and they allowed Tampa Bay to come back and win Game 3 late. I didn’t want to think at the time that that was the turning point in the series. After all, the Rangers still had a 2-1 lead. But it turned out to be just that. The champs, even without star Brayden Point, had rediscovered their mojo, and they put the clamps on the Rangers’ offense en route to another three consecutive victories to close out the series. The Lightning obviously deserve credit, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Rangers blew the series.

Micro View: Bad Vibes

I know that pretty much anyone visiting this site already knows about everything I just recapped, but it felt important to briefly chronicle the Blueshirts’ postseason journey to better build the perspective of what this team accomplished and how it ultimately fell short. If you had told any Rangers fan before the season that they’d make the Eastern Conference Final, they would have undoubtedly been thrilled at the huge leap that would have meant for this team. From that perspective, this season was a major success. The team exceeded expectations, reaching the “gravy” phase of the postseason.

The micro view, however, is a different story. Once the Rangers got up 2-0 in the series against the Lightning, the opportunity was too great to let slip away, but that’s what they did, particularly in Game 3 in Tampa and later in Game 5 on home ice. They played poorly for most of Game 6, with Shesterkin (who else?) keeping them within striking distance all night. The lackluster team performance was perhaps understandable given the team’s grueling schedule thanks to two consecutive series that went the distance prior to the Eastern Conference Final. Playing 20 playoff games in 40 days is surely exhausting.

What makes their demise more frustrating, though, is that head coach Gerard Gallant inexplicably handcuffed the Rangers with his lineup decisions in Game 6, as well as his apparent lack of proper adjustments after the Lightning figured out how to shut down the Rangers at five-on-five. Yes, the Rangers were tired, but there was no evidence of Gallant having any meaningful answers tactically for the Lightning’s shutdown of the neutral zone and middle of the ice.

Regarding the lineup, with how tired the Rangers were and how the series was going, Kaapo Kakko being in the dressed for Game 6 probably would not have made any difference in the outcome of the game. Nevertheless, Gallant’s decision to scratch him had zero upside whatsoever, limiting the Rangers’ attack for no apparent reason at all. Then there was Gallant’s refusal to explain his reasoning after the game, which only added more frustration. By the time Monday’s breakup day rolled around, Gallant had slightly more to say on the subject — not that it offered any legitimate reasoning.

Not even a discussion with Kakko to explain the scratch? Seems like a bad way to manage relationships with players!

As seen above, Gallant did say that he likes Kakko as a player. He also said that he envisions him as a big part of the immediate future in New York, but in the context of the Game 6 scratch and his unwillingness (or inability) to adequately explain it, those positive comments feel like meaningless lip service to me.

Looking back at the on-ice implications of Gallant’s decision, the Kid Line was not only the Rangers’ most exciting unit to watch this postseason, but it was also the most consistent in creating five-on-five offense, which was the team’s biggest area of need as the Eastern Conference Final progressed. Limiting rather than increasing that trio’s minutes, before then disbanding the group and scratching one of its players, seemed detrimental to the Rangers’ efforts to win. In no way does Dryden Hunt bring more to the table than Kakko. That’s not even to mention the decision to dress an injured Ryan Strome, who was battling a re-aggravated pelvis injury and could barely move on the ice before leaving Game 6 for good before the third period. Are we to understand that Gallant, in “trying to win a hockey game,” thought Kakko wouldn’t be as effective as an injured forward who couldn’t even finish the game, let alone a fourth-line player with no real offensive upside?

It would be silly to completely discount the role Gallant played in guiding a previous non-playoff team to 110 points and an appearance in the league’s final four. Make no mistake: He is an upgrade over David Quinn. Having said that, it’s hard to ignore a decision like scratching Kakko in the playoffs, which only becomes more inexplicable the closer you examine it.

Looking Ahead

While extremely ill-advised, the decision to scratch Kakko is not what ultimately cost the Rangers the series against the Lightning, but it does place a slight damper on my future outlook for the team. Besides lineup configurations still being a concern moving forward, we’ve already seen this organization alienate talented European youngsters in the past, so hopefully this isn’t a sign of a deteriorating relationship with yet another lottery draft pick. The Rangers are going to need to lean heavily on their young talent in order to have sustained success moving forward.

The Kakko situation notwithstanding, the Rangers still have a strong crop of good young players, so the general consensus among the fan base and the league’s onlookers remains that the future is bright, and that the contention window is just opening. While I tend to feel similarly optimistic, a couple of things are tempering that optimism.

As alluded to, there’s the organization’s questionable ability to manage and develop young talent. Then there’s the fact that up front, the players who drove the bus for New York this year are all in their primes and/or approaching the tail end of their primes. Mika Zibanejad is 29, Chris Kreider is 31, and Artemiy Panarin is 30. Ryan Strome (29) and Andrew Copp (27) are both unrestricted free agents; it seems that at most, only one might be back because of salary cap constraints.

The expectation is that the young players — particularly Braden Schneider, K’Andre Miller, and the forwards from the Kid Line — will continue to get better, but the Rangers have work to do in order to come back in 2022-23 and the following years with an equally competitive cap-compliant roster, let alone an improved one that can produce more consistent offense at five-on-five.

Beyond that, even with a good roster, getting this far into the postseason is difficult. You need a good team, but you also need some luck along the way. Despite the promise of their young core, there’s no guarantee that the Rangers will be back here anytime soon, so one can only hope that this is the beginning of an era of consistent competitiveness for the Rangers, and something to build on for future postseason runs with this core, rather than a missed opportunity that they end up emptily chasing for the next number of years.

Having said all of that, before next season and even before what promises to be an eventful offseason, it’s still absolutely worth appreciating this 2021-22 season. Personally, I’ve been watching the Rangers closely since I was eight years old, starting with the 1997-98 season (the first of seven straight seasons without a playoff berth — a lovely way for this franchise to introduce itself to me). This is easily the most fun, enjoyable, and likable Rangers team I’ve ever watched. Yes, even better than the 2014 Stanley Cup Final team, and any other team from the Henrik Lundqvist era (with all due respect to the King). There was just something about the tight-knit nature and positivity this group created all season that made them such a joy to watch, before some self-inflicted issues and missed opportunities put a sour final note on things.

If it feels like this post was all over the place, then that’s merely a byproduct of where my mind is with regard to the Rangers, and not being able to identify with only a single emotion to sum up this season. Overall, though, I am starting to feel a lean toward positivity and fondness for this year, as well as optimism for the near future. After all, this was my favorite Rangers squad in my 25 years following them. There is just the looming worry that this might be as close as they get to a championship for a long time, as things can change in a hurry and luck can go against them. All we can do is hope that this is only the first of a new series of enjoyable rides this team can give us.