Since coming out of the NHL lockout that caused the cancelation of the entire 2004-05 season, the Rangers had missed the playoffs only once before this year. And that time, they were eliminated in a shootout loss on the final day of the season.
What went wrong this season? Here are five things that caused the Rangers to start their summer vacation early.
WHAT WENT WRONG
1. The slow start.
The Rangers signed free agent Kevin Shattenkirk and re-signed Brendan Smith, but the defensemen struggled early on, and the retooled defense got off to a slow start as a group. It turned out Shattenkirk was playing hurt, and Smith had reported to camp out of shape. With the defense struggling, the team dug itself a hole by starting 1-6-2 in its first nine games and 3-7-2 in its first 12. Not ideal for a club that was probably a “bubble’’ team to begin with.
2. The over reliance on goaltending.
From Halloween until the end of the calendar year, the Rangers goaltending carried the team and masked a lot of problems. During that stretch, Henrik Lundqvist posted a .930 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average in 23 appearances, and backup Ondrej Pavelec had a .953 save percentage and 1.94 goals-against average. The Rangers went 18-7-2 during that stretch and were 20-13-5 at the flip of the calendar. But, quite frankly, that level of goaltending was unsustainable. And as soon as the goalies came back to earth, the Rangers’ fortunes tumbled.
3. The injuries.
Top line center Mika Zibanejad was off to a fast start before a concussion caused him to miss nine games; left wing Chris Kreider missed 24 games because of a blood clot that led to surgery on his ribs; Shattenkirk had knee surgery in January and never made it back. Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey and Marc Staal missed time with concussions/head/neck injuries. It was a lot to overcome.
4. The decision.
When management announced Feb. 8 that it would pull the plug on the season and focus on the future, making them a seller, instead of a buyer, at the trade deadline, the team was three points out of a playoff spot with 28 games to play. When the Rangers were officially eliminated from playoff contention in late March, coach Alain Vigneault said he believed it would have made the playoffs had the roster stayed intact. We’ll never know if he was right.
5. The mirage.
After the selloff, which saw the shipping out of Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and captain Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers went 3-0 on a Western Canada road swing. But in their return home, they were shut out by Winnipeg and then lost the next two games in Florida (one in a shootout) which brought them back to reality.
So what’s next?
1. The lottery.
On April 28, the NHL will hold its draft lottery. The Rangers were ninth from the bottom, after their 2-1 loss to the Islanders Thursday. That gave them a five percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick, and a 16 percent chance of getting a pick in the top 3, according to the website tankathon.com. That No. 1 pick would be nice to have. Just saying.
2. Free agency.
Well, first, there are all these restricted free agents (RFAs) the Rangers have to make decisions on. Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Hayes, Ryan Spooner, Vladimir Namestnikov, Brady Skjei, John Gilmour, Ryan Sproul and Nesconset’s own Rob O’Gara are in that group. Do the Rangers want to bring them all back?
3. More free agency.
You may have heard that John Tavares of the Islanders is an unrestricted free agent. He’d sure look good in Broadway Blue. Former Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who’s been playing in Russia, is said to want to make an NHL comeback, too. Would the Rangers be interested in a short term deal for sniper who turns 35 on April 15?
4. How soon will the kids be ready?
Ranger fans got a sneak peak at their two 2017 first-round draft picks, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, at the end of the season. And goalie Alexandar Georgiev, an undrafted free agent signed last summer, looked like a find when he got a chance to play late in the year after Pavelec was hurt. Then there are guys we haven’t seen: D Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek, C Brett Howden, etc., etc. And three first-round picks (plus two second-rounders and two third-rounders) in this summer’s draft. They can’t all pan out, but how many of them will? And to what extent?
5. Which long-time favorites are next to leave?
Gorton isn’t done remaking the roster, obviously, and other veteran players (Mats Zuccarello? Marc Staal?) who survived the trade deadline selloff could be moved out in the summer. But who? You can’t get rid of everybody. You need some veterans to stay and show the new kids around.