Artemi Panarin #10 of the Rangers celebrates after scoring a goal...

Artemi Panarin #10 of the Rangers celebrates after scoring a goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period in Game One of the Second Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 5, 2024. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final took place on Saturday night.

The Rangers weren’t in it.

Instead, it was the Florida Panthers — who beat the Rangers in six games in the Eastern Conference final a week ago — hosting Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in the first two games of the series.

The Rangers are left to ponder what it will take to get past the Panthers — two-time Cup finalists and clearly the team to beat in the East — to reach their goal of winning the Cup for the first time since 1994.

According to president and general manager Chris Drury, he already has begun working on trying to improve the roster to do just that.

“The process is already underway and will continue throughout the offseason,’’ Drury told reporters in his season-ending debrief on Friday. “As I often say, we’re constantly trying to figure out how it can be better and push forward to reach our ultimate goal.’’

Drury said “nothing’s off the table’’ in trying to improve the team, including the idea of moving on from one or more of the team’s core players, presuming he can do that and somehow improve the roster or team chemistry.

Realistically, though, it’s hard to see how the Rangers could move on from Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad or Vincent Trocheck, who have full no-move contracts, or franchise icon Chris Kreider or captain Jacob Trouba, who have partial no-moves.

Goaltender Igor Shesterkin has a 10-team no-trade list and defenseman Adam Fox doesn’t have trade protection at all. But there’s no way Drury would be looking to move on from either one.

So Drury instead must strengthen the team around the core, and the most obvious place to start would be to find a suitable right wing to play with Zibanejad and Kreider.

Coach Peter Laviolette determined he wouldn’t consider breaking up the Panarin-Trocheck-Alexis Lafreniere line this season, so Zibanejad and Kreider had to stay together. But Laviolette never could find the proper right wing for them.

He started with Kaapo Kakko, then tried Blake Wheeler until he got hurt. Jonny Brodzinski, Will Cuylle and Jimmy Vesey got brief looks before Drury traded for Jack Roslovic at the deadline. Filip Chytil got a look in the playoffs, and in the final game, Alex Wennberg took a turn.

None of them clicked.

At breakup day last week, Zibanejad was asked what attributes he thinks a player needs to be able to fit with him and Kreider.

“I have some ideas, but I couldn’t tell you right away what I need,’’ Zibanejad said. “But in the past, it’s been working with a guy that can pass, and more, maybe, of a passer, because Kreids is a shooter, I’m a shooter.’’

But Frank Vatrano seemed like a good fit after he came over from Florida as a rental at the 2022 trade deadline, and he’s more shooter than passer. He had eight goals and five assists in 22 games with the Rangers, most of those playing with Kreider and Zibanejad. And in his career, he has 160 goals and 111 assists, including a career-high 37 goals and 23 assists with Anaheim this season.

Vladimir Tarasenko, a rental in 2023, seemed to work, too. He had eight goals and 13 assists in 31 games with the Rangers, much of that playing with Kreider and Zibanejad.

Drury said Friday he’s looking at different options to find a right wing for Kreider and Zibanejad, “some internal, some external.’’

Internally, Chytil probably would be the top choice. He’s a natural center, but Laviolette sees him as a top-six forward. Zibanejad and Trocheck have the top two center positions locked up, so the only opening in the top six would be on the wing.

Chytil played on the wing early in his career, and at breakup day, he said he can and is willing to play wing if that’s what the coaches want.

“If I can play more minutes . . . on the wing, I can do it,’’ he said. “I just want to play. I just want to be an important player for this team.’’

There are some big-name free agents available July 1, headed by Florida’s Sam Reinhart and Carolina’s Jake Guentzel. It’s unlikely the Rangers — who tried to get Guentzel from the Penguins as a rental at the trade deadline — would be able to afford either of those guys, but further down, the list would be players such as Florida’s Tarasenko, Boston’s Jake DeBrusk and another former Rangers rental, Patrick Kane, who had 20 goals and 27 assists in 50 games with Detroit this season after coming off back surgery.

As far as potential trade targets, Vatrano, 30, was another player the Rangers are thought to have looked into getting at the trade deadline. He has a year left on his contract at a manageable $3.65 million.

So Drury has options. He just has to choose the right one.


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