The Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup Final and the grinding five-game battle of attrition -- yes, you really can say that about a five-game series -- before losing to the Kings was a testament to the team's emotion and desire to win.
Now, with the team returning home Saturday to prepare for exit interviews and disperse for the brief offseason, it's time to be cold and clear-eyed.
General manager Glen Sather and his brain trust have a mountain of decisions to make on a team that was not expected to push this far.
Just about three months ago, the buyout call on Brad Richards was easy: With six seasons and $27 million in actual salary and a hugely punitive cap recapture system installed via the last collective-bargaining agreement, there seemed no way Sather could afford to keep Richards if he wanted to keep any of the Rangers' eight restricted and unrestricted free agents.
But now what? Richards clearly wore down as the postseason wore on, which is not a good sign. But his ability to take over the dressing room after Ryan Callahan's departure had a significant effect on the team. His close relationship with Martin St. Louis clearly has an impact, too.
Even if Gary Bettman had handed the Stanley Cup to Richards on Friday night, this still would be a call that has to be made. The Rangers discovered just how far the current group of skaters in front of Henrik Lundqvist can go. It's clear there is a need to improve, especially down the middle of the forward group.
Is it time for Sather to work the phones as only he can to try to wrest a No. 1 center? Would Joe Thornton consider the Rangers and a chance to play alongside Team Canada friend Rick Nash? The Rangers already are down their next two No. 1 picks, so what exactly do they have to offer in a deal? Would it be wiser to buy out Richards and throw a top-dollar contract at the top free-agent center, which would appear to be Paul Stastny?
Just about every RFA the Rangers have is in line for a significant raise. Derick Brassard made $3.7 million this season; he's not someone who can be sacrificed in the name of salary-cap management. Ditto Mats Zuccarello, whose $1.15-million salary turned out to be one of the bigger bargains in the league. Chris Kreider will get a big bump from his $1.35 million.
That's three young, crucial forwards for the Rangers who will be eating up a large chunk of the Rangers' $17 million in cap space (closer to $24 million if and when Richards is bought out).
Among UFAs, Anton Stralman proved his value and then some. He might end up being better suited as Ryan McDonagh's defense partner. Unlike the RFA group, Stralman can expect to be paid handsomely should he reach July 1 without a deal. The other problem is that top-four defensemen are a rare species on the open market, so the Rangers would not be able to replace Stralman so easily.
The harder decisions come at the depth end of the forward group. Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot are unrestricted. Boyle and Moore showed that being a mediocre-to-solid regular-season player is perfectly fine when you can ramp up your game in the postseason. Boyle is only 29, which means he'd likely get a Brandon Prust-type deal (four years, $10 million) at the very minimum as a free agent.
Pouliot and Moore have never played on more than one- or two-year deals. Both could be had for the right price and term.
But NHL teams are learning that being the fourth-line center or third-line wing might be just as important to success as having the right first-liners, so nothing is certain once the frenzy begins in 16 days.
Now is time for reflection, but not sentimentality. The Rangers came close, but they will need to be better next season. Nostalgia doesn't get you back to the top.
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