Even now, more than a week after their season ended, the Rangers loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals still stings. Watching the Devils play for the Stanley Cup against the Los Angeles Kings hurts because the Rangers and their fans realize how close they were to reaching that goal themselves.
In time, fans will realize that 2011-12 was a season of accomplishment for the Blueshirts. It was the first time the Rangers reached the third round of the playoffs since 1997 and the first time they were the top seed in the Eastern Conference since their Stanley Cup year of 1994.
This Rangers team showed guts and determination throughout the season. This was a team that completely bought in to John Tortorella’s system and it clearly paid dividends. The Rangers played strong team defense, sacrificed their bodies to block shots and relied on the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and just enough offense to win hockey games.
“I love our jam, I love our [guts],” Tortorella told reporters just before the team left the club’s practice facility for the last time. “I really like what we have here. I don’t think it will be the same. There’s always changes. But what our group has developed in their identity, their mindset, I think showed. Again, we don’t get it done, but I just like the way they handled themselves.”
“We’re still a young club and we still have quite a bit to learn as far as the desperation when you get to this third round. You hear it so much, and I won’t accept it. You know, you won a couple of rounds. You got into the third round. That isn’t good enough. We still have to find a way to win another round and get there.”
As they enter a pivotal off-season, here is a look at issues the Rangers need to address to return to contention for a Stanley Cup in 2012-13.
1) The Rangers need more goal scoring: The lack of scoring depth cost them in the series against the Devils and made both the Ottawa and Washington series closer than they should have been. There is no doubt that the Rangers should be players in free agency as they do have some cap room to play with. Zach Parise heads a fairly strong class of free agents and would be a great addition (and a subtraction from the Devils). It is also possible the Rangers will re-start trade talks with Columbus and try to acquire Rick Nash. Both Nash and Parise are in their primes, but expect the Blue Jackets to ask a pretty penny for Nash and it may still be more than the Rangers are looking to pay. The fact that Marian Gaborik will have surgery and will probably miss the early part of the season doesn’t help the scoring problem, but it is more important to have Gaborik ready for the stretch drive and the playoffs than to have him for all 82 games. If they don’t trade him, the Rangers need Brandon Dubinsky to bounce back and provide more offense. Having Chris Kreider for a full season will help, but don’t expect Kreider to be an instant 30 goal scorer as a rookie.
2) Defensive depth must also be added: The Rangers top four defensemen are as good as any group in the league but over the course of the Devils series, the fact that Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto played so many minutes every game took its toll on the Rangers. Getting Michael Sauer back and healthy would help, but it remains questionable when or if Sauer will be able to return from his concussion that kept him out of action since December. The Rangers don’t need any stars here, but having a third pairing on the blue line that Torts feels comfortable playing more than five minutes per game in the playoffs is a necessity. Reducing the ice time of the big four would make them more effective when they are in the game. Rookie Tim Erixon may play be ready to help solve this problem next season.
3) Backup goalie: Martin Biron’s contract is up and the Rangers need to figure out whether to bring the veteran netminder back for another year, or find someone else to play behind Lundqvist. Biron will turn 32 this summer. He is great in the clubhouse and capable of starting for a few games if Lundqvist goes down, without hurting the club. Biron can give the Rangers 20-25 quality starts and keep Lundqvist sharp enough for the playoffs, so bringing him back makes sense if Glen Sather can agree to terms with him. Otherwise, the Rangers need to bring in a relatively inexpensive and reliable backup.
4) The Rangers need to address their own free agents and role players. Ruslan Fedotenko’s contract is up. He has proven to be a valuable role player, knows Tortorella’s system well and is a positive influence in the locker room. Brandon Prust adds size and muscle and is also an unrestricted free agent. Depth players John Mitchell, John Scott, Stu Bickel, Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka are UFAs and may not be back. Most of them can be replaced fairly easily. RFA’s include Del Zotto and Anton Stralman. Mighty-mite Mats Zuccarello already left for the KHL.
In the salary cap era, changes come every season for all hockey teams. The Rangers had a very successful season and are close to being perennial Stanley Cup contenders. How they handle this off-season will determine if they stay among the league’s elite or fall back to the pack.