Rangers left wing Chris Kreider loses the puck against Lightning defenseman...

Rangers left wing Chris Kreider loses the puck against Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta during the first period in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara

The mixture of disappointment, sadness, frustration and a sense of loss that blended into Chris Kreider’s blank stare was more than understandable minutes after the Rangers’ fine season ended on Saturday night with a 2-1 road loss to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

“Empty,” Kreider said, his usually quiet speaking voice devolving into something that could barely be described as a whisper. “Obviously very sad.”

Opportunities to reach the Cup Final can be few and far between for an NHL player, and missed chances sting worse than a nest of hornets.

For as bright as the Rangers’ future seems, starting with Igor Shesterkin in net and a bevy of really good, young defensemen, there are no guarantees that the Blueshirts will find themselves back in this position.

Kreider knows this all too well. Now the Rangers’ longest-tenured player at age 31, he joined the team right out of Boston College during the 2012 playoffs just as he was turning 21. The best team John Tortorella coached during his Broadway run ran out of gas in a six-game loss to the Devils in the conference finals after going the full seven in the first two rounds.

Sound familiar? That’s what happened to the Rangers in this grueling run of 20 playoff games in 40 days. The team finally was off on Sunday, but Monday is breakup day at the Madison Square Garden Training Center in Greenburgh, and the real offseason questions can begin.

Kreider was a key cog as the Rangers reached the Cup Final in 2014 under Alain Vigneault, only to lose to the Kings in five games. In 2015, AV’s best Rangers team lost Game 7 of the conference finals to the Lightning, starting Tampa Bay’s remarkable run of six conference finals appearances in eight years.

That Rangers’ core went no further and eventually aged out, The Letter was sent out Feb. 8, 2018, detailing the planned rebuild, and that started three seasons of missing the playoffs (we’re not including the Rangers being swept out of the Toronto playoff bubble in three games by the Hurricanes in the qualifying round in 2020).

Now a deep playoff run has fueled strong optimism for the coming seasons. But windows of opportunity can have fickle time lines in the NHL, and Kreider is all too aware of that.

Rare is the team that can maintain a high level of success. Ask the Islanders. They reached the NHL’s final four in consecutive seasons but lost to the Lightning both times. Then they missed the playoffs this season, and it cost coach Barry Trotz his job.

This now falls on Rangers president/general manager Chris Drury to improve the team from this season.

The Rangers have approximately $13.5 million in salary-cap space heading into the offseason with Andrew Copp, Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte and defenseman Justin Braun heading a list of unrestricted free agents. The Rangers have traded away their first-round pick (for Copp) and third-rounder and, in 2023, their only pick among the first five rounds is a second-rounder.

Which is to say Drury’s task won’t necessarily be easy as the Rangers’ depth may take a hit.

Of course, this is not all gloom and doom. Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and defensemen Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller and Ryan Lindgren, not to mention Shesterkin, the presumed Vezina Trophy winner, is a darn good core.

The Kid Line components, Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, took steps forward in their development during the playoff run, even if Gerard Gallant’s healthy scratch of Kakko — the second overall pick in 2019 before Lafreniere was picked first overall the following year — in Game 6 seemed curious.

The Islanders, Penguins and Capitals all have aging rosters in the Metropolitan Division, the Devils are in a perennial zig-zag rebuild and the Flyers were a hot mess this season, though that could change if either Trotz or Tortorella gets that job.

The Rangers should be frustrated, disappointed and sad about their season ending.

And they should be optimistic about the future, even though there are no guarantees.


 

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