GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Having won two rounds, plus two games against the defending Stanley Cup champions before finally bowing out of the playoffs in a six-game loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the question the Rangers are left to ponder is this:
What does this team need to do to win the Stanley Cup?
Not much, they say.
“Honestly, I think we're right there in that mix [of Cup contenders],’’ defenseman Jacob Trouba said Monday, as the team gathered at its practice facility to conduct their exit interviews and say their goodbyes at breakup day. “A couple one-goal games [against Tampa Bay], had a good regular season, finished in the top part of the league. We have everything that you need, I think. We’ve just got to put it together.’’
“I definitely think we have the group,’’ defenseman Adam Fox said. “I mean, we were two games away from making the Cup final, and… it's little bounces here or there. The margin of error is so small that you win one game and your season's still going on. [Or] you get a bounce, you lose the game, and your season's over.
“But I mean, the group we had, I think we showed a lot,’’ he said. “We can play with just about any team in this league. And so yeah, I definitely think we’ve got the group to do it here.’’
But they won’t have this same group going forward. The Rangers, who finished with 110 points in the regular season, were a good team in the season, but they got better when GM Chris Drury added four players, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun, at the trade deadline. Coach Gerard Gallant said Monday that he didn’t believe the Rangers would have made it as far as they did without the contributions they got from those players.
But all of them are unrestricted free agents, as are centers Ryan Strome and Kevin Rooney. And given the realities of the NHL’s $82.5 million salary cap, the Rangers are not going to be able to keep all six players next season.
They will need a second-line center behind Mika Zibanejad, who likely would play with Artemi Panarin, but either Strome or Copp could fit that bill. It’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario where the Rangers will be able to keep both. Strome, who turns 29 next month, said Monday he’d love to return; Copp, who turns 28 next month, said he’s still smarting over the way the season ended and hasn’t really thought about where he may end up just yet.
“But I definitely did enjoy my time here and it definitely feels like there's unfinished business, and I definitely, really liked the group and the direction this team's going,’’ he said.
Trouba, his childhood friend, hopes Copp chooses to stay with the Rangers.
“I just saw him in the hallway as he's leaving,’’ Trouba said. “I told him, 'Better not be our last game together.'’’
Coach Gerard Gallant also said all the Rangers need to take the next step is for their young players, like Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider to keep improving.
“We’ve got a nice window here coming up if everybody keeps developing, and playing well,’’ he said. “I don't think we have to do a whole lot much different.’’