Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues
PITTSBURGH — Tear up all the scoresheets and burn them. All that’s left of the Rangers’ 2015-16 season are ashes.
It was the sixth straight postseason appearance for the Blueshirts, and likely the last for some of them. General manager Jeff Gorton has some difficult financial and personnel decisions to make this summer.
Although the Rangers were 46-27-9 (101 points) in the third season on Alain Vigneault’s watch, the performance was inconsistent starting in November, and they stumbled down the stretch. They had one strong streak — 11-0-2 from Oct. 18 to Nov. 15 — and then a lot of stutter steps.
In the last 19 games of the season, at a time when Vigneault’s teams usually have improved, the Rangers were 9-7-3 and let their grip on second place in the Metropolitan Division slip away, losing three times to the Penguins and twice to the Islanders. Then they won only one game against the Penguins during their first-round exit.
What went wrong?
Yesterday’s 6-3 loss in Game 5 illuminated the flaws that surfaced during the season: Holes on defense that tested Henrik Lundqvist, a step slow in center ice, an inability to hold leads and another poor performance on the road.
“We got beat in a lot of different areas,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “You try to prepare, but they were just better than us and knocked us out.”
Moving forward won’t be simple. The Rangers, without a first-round pick, have no help coming in the draft.
One bright spot was the play of rookie Brady Skjei, who parachuted into a full-time role on the blue line in the playoffs. The front office hopes to sign Russian forward Pavel Buchnevich, their top offensive prospect, who turned 20 last week. His KHL team was eliminated and he could be in New York for prospect camp in July.
One cannot assess the offense without noting a glaring need: a difference- maker. The Penguins have superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Capitals have Alex Ovechkin. The Islanders have John Tavares. Rick Nash hasn’t filled the bill. These guys don’t grow on trees, and in recent years, many NHL teams have signed their young playmakers to long-term deals.
Who’s out there?
There is one player due to hit the open market who could fill the void: Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who is 26. But he will command a king’s ransom if he chooses to leave the Lightning. The Rangers would have to clear a ton of space for him, but the sensational No. 1 center would level the ice in the Eastern Conference, with 312 goals and 562 points in 569 career games.
There might be interest in Islanders winger Kyle Okposo, 28, who was 22-42-64 in 79 games, or Boston’s Loui Eriksson, 30, who was 30-33-63.
At what cost?
Dan Boyle’s $4.5-million annual salary-cap hit is over. Letting free agent Keith Yandle walk? A buyout of defenseman Dan Girardi’s contract that will pay him $22 million over the next four years? A trade of Nash and his $7.8-million contract, which has two years remaining? The Rangers certainly would have to retain some of that salary.
Free agents Viktor Stalberg and Dom Moore likely won’t be back. And Gorton must decide on what to pay young restricted free agents Chris Kreider (now earning $2.475 million), Kevin Hayes ($900,000) and J.T. Miller ($874,000).
The last word
“When you get kicked out in the first round, we’ve got disappointment throughout . . . management, coaches and players and the Rangers fans,” Vigneault said. “We all expected more and wanted more.”