The Rangers’ 2021-22 season was an unqualified success, even if some players were still smarting Monday over the way it ended Saturday night in Tampa, with a 2-1 loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning.
After a four-year rebuild, the Rangers began the season with a mandate to make the playoffs. They did so with a stunning 110-point regular season, then rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the first round of the playoffs to beat the Penguins in seven games.
And it didn’t end there. They beat the Metropolitan Division winners, the Hurricanes, in the second round, winning Game 7 on the road. Then, everything after that was gravy. They held a 2-0 lead in the series against the Lightning, and a 2-0 lead in Game 3, before running out of gas and losing the series.
So what happens now?
Well, the chase for next season’s Stanley Cup starts this summer for general manager Chris Drury, who has a few questions to figure out as he looks to improve the roster.
Who’s No. 2?
Mika Zibanejad is established as the team’s No. 1 center, but who will line up behind him as the second-line center? Ryan Strome, who had that job most of the last four seasons, is an unrestricted free agent. Will the Rangers bring him back to reprise that role, or will Drury decide that Andrew Copp, one of the trade-deadline acquisitions who fit so perfectly into the lineup, is a better choice? Copp also is a UFA, and it’s highly unlikely Drury can fit both players under the salary cap next season. So will it be Strome, who made $4.5 million this season and turns 29 next month, or Copp, who made $3.64 million, turns 28 next month, and is in line for a significant raise? Or, might Drury trust 22-year-old Filip Chytil, who opened eyes with his seven goals in 20 games in the playoffs, to step up into the role? Could it be someone else altogether?
Are Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko ready for full-time, top-six forward roles?
Presuming Frank Vatrano, another trade-deadline acquisition who fit perfectly as the right wing on the top line with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, doesn’t return (he’s also a UFA), both Lafrenière, 20, and Kakko, 21, will be expected to assume a bigger role. Gerard Gallant said Monday that both youngsters are “100%’’ ready to be among the top six next season. Lafrenière, a natural left wing, would have to switch to the right side, and Kakko — a healthy scratch for the first time in his career in Game 6 against Tampa Bay — is a restricted free agent. So will Kakko come back? And if he does, will he be happy, confident and productive?
Can they afford to keep Tyler Motte?
The 5-10, 192-pounder added crazy speed and energy to the bottom-six forward group, and helped in the penalty-killing and faceoff departments as well. But he’s likely going to earn more than the $1.225 million he made in 2021-22, and right now the Rangers are projected to be $13.45 million under the salary cap, according to CapFriendly, with just 14 players under contract. So they might not be able to splurge on a fourth-liner.
Can they trade defenseman Patrik Nemeth and save a few bucks?
Nemeth signed a three-year deal worth an average of $2.5 million per before last season, but he had a tough season. He had lingering effects from COVID-19 and his wife had a difficult pregnancy (thankfully, she had a healthy baby and everything was OK). On the ice, Nemeth was below par, and he was replaced by another trade acquisition, Justin Braun, another UFA, in the playoffs. Nemeth is under contract for two more seasons, and the Rangers have some defense prospects waiting in the system. Moving Nemeth might be the best thing for both parties.
Who’s going to be the backup goalie?
As Igor Shesterkin played more and more this season, Alexandar Georgiev played less and less, and he struggled with his increasingly limited role. He is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and won't come back next season. The Rangers will be looking for a cheaper option to back up Shesterkin. Might that be Farmingville native (and UFA) Keith Kinkaid?