With his aching left knee still wrapped after Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Capitals that eliminated the Rangers from the playoffs, defenseman Marc Staal assessed the young core of the team.
"Obviously, we gained some experience in this series. Any experience is good experience," said Staal, named an alternate captain this season and no graybeard at 24. "But it's no consolation."
Staal has been to the playoffs with the Rangers three times, previously in 2008 and 2009, and another summer of change looms. He and underrated defense partner Dan Girardi will be around for a while, thanks to long-term contracts. But for the Rangers, offseason moves are as certain as August humidity, and the forecast is the same.
Overall, the Rangers (44-33-5) had six more wins than in 2009-10, but nine victories came in shootouts.
Without a consistent offense -- no Ranger had 30 goals or 60 points -- and ravaged by injuries starting in training camp, coach John Tortorella insisted on building with youth, a dump-and-chase offense and strong defense. The Rangers led the NHL in hits and were fourth in blocked shots.
With 14 players under contract for $42.6 million, general manager Glen Sather and Tortorella have decisions to make. Tortorella will be back next season, with some reinforcements, as the management team attempts to keep rebuilding.
Sather didn't swap promising youngsters for veterans to try to get through the first round of the playoffs. Tortorella supported him, preaching patience and pitching the concept of building a stronger team with the ability to contend for several years, not just one spring.
Offense is the overriding issue. Marian Gaborik, a game-breaker last season with 42 goals, struggled. A shoulder injury and concussion limited him to 62 games, and he did not look like the same player. He finished with 22 goals and 48 points, much too little to justify a $7.5- million salary. Next year will be his third in a five-year deal, and Gaborik needs to rebound.
Surprising seasons from some players helped. Derek Stepan, who left the University of Wisconsin after his sophomore year, finished fifth in scoring among rookies with 21 goals and 24 assists. Brian Boyle posted career-high numbers: 21 goals and 14 assists. Artem Anisimov, the Russian center playing his second full season, scored 18 goals. Brandon Prust, obtained from Calgary last season, blossomed into more than just a scrappy wing willing to drop the gloves with anyone. He scored 13 goals, including five shorthanded, which ranked third in the league.
Of the five unrestricted free agents -- forwards Vinny Prospal, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alex Frolov and defensemen Bryan McCabe and Steve Eminger -- four likely will not return. Frolov suffered severe knee damage and didn't play after Jan. 11. McCabe, acquired from Florida at the trade deadline to quarterback the power play, didn't contribute enough. Only one of the two forwards who played for Tortorella in Tampa presumably will be offered a contract. Prospal, 35, played only 29 games after major knee surgery; Fedotenko is a few years younger.
The main questions involve Chris Drury ($7-million salary-cap hit in 2011-12), Wojtek Wolski ($3.8 million), Sean Avery ($1.9 million), Erik Christensen ($927,000) and Derek Boogaard ($1.6 million per for the next three years). One or more could be bought out to create cap space for a top free agent such as Dallas' Brad Richards, who could center a line with Gaborik and run the power play.
The Rangers are likely to re-sign most of their restricted free agents. Ryan Callahan, the all-around right wing whose loss to a fractured ankle April 4 put a huge dent in the team's playoff chances, will be back with a significant bump from his $2.3-million salary, as will Michael Sauer, who earned every cent of his $500,000, and Boyle, who at $525,000 was one of the biggest bargains in the East. Brandon Dubinsky, who was 24-30-54 in the second season of a $3.7-million deal, and Anisimov ($875,000) should be part of the roster. Matt Gilroy, who played well against the Capitals, is a question mark but might be offered a contract at a lower salary.
The Dolan family owns
controlling interest in the Rangers, MSG and Cablevision.
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