New York Rangers

Rangers at crossroads of rebuild and all-in

The New York Rangers’ elimination at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in a mere five games could be seen from a mile away if you had been paying attention. The sobering reality is that the Broadway Blueshirts were not a very good hockey team in 2015-16.

The franchise finished with 101 points, but it was a facade supported by a nine game win streak early on in the season and further propped up with 10 wins in the stretch ahead of the trade deadline. A look at the team’s PDO (team save percentage plus team shooting percentage) told you everything you needed to know about them, and it eventually came crashing down.

These occurrences made general manager Jeff Gorton go “Staal in” for a playoff run, and now the franchise is in an even bigger hole going forward.  Before the season Alain Vigneault watched Apollo 13, a critically acclaimed film about a failed mission to the moon, and one of the mantras he took from the movie was “failure is not an option.”

Well, the Rangers failed at their last kick at the can, and as a result they are at a crossroads.

Simply put, Jeff Gorton has to make a tough decision about the future of the Rangers. He has to decide if enough is enough and if the franchise will start a lengthy rebuild or instead to keep the core intact. Either way he needs to make a decision quickly and stick to it.

The Rangers can’t afford any more half measures, because that hasn’t worked in recent years.

The Blueshirts during the late 1990s and early 2000s were in a mode in which they tried to buy a championship. Glen Sather spent tons of money and eventually was forced to change his ways when a salary cap was established after the lockout.

At that point the Rangers focused on the draft and picked up players such as Marc Staal, Artem Anisimov, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Michael Del Zotto, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller.

After a first round exit in 2010-11 New York decided it was time to start making moves, and it started with the signing of Brad Richards. The Rangers needed a top center in the worst way, because that season center Brandon Dubinsky led the team in scoring with 54 points.

Richards was coming off a stretch of solid hockey with the Dallas Stars, and it was assumed that he’d be a great fit. It wasn’t as perfect as management would’ve hoped, but the Rangers made their first Eastern Conference Final since 1997.

In many ways the jump from first round exit to conference final exit in a year made it seem the Rangers were further ahead as a contender than they actually were, and it was at this moment that the team went from a focus on young talent to looking to add that final piece.

Here’s a look at the top scorers on the team that went to the conference final in 2012.

Marian Gaborik was the Rangers’ top threat, but the team needed more, and it’s a shame this would be the last run he made with the team in the playoffs.

Rick Nash was the first attempt at adding that final piece, partially because the Blueshirts couldn’t score against the New Jersey Devils in the conference final. It cost the Rangers a first round pick and a package that included Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, but it made sense at the time.

The approach of focusing on scoring then took a sideways turn when Marian Gaborik was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets during the following deadline for a packaged centered around center Derick Brassard, and it stung when John Tortorella was eventually fired after the Rangers bowed out in the conference semifinals versus the Boston Bruins.

Alain Vigneault was then tapped to be the Rangers’ bench boss, and during his first season the Blueshirts blossomed from his system which focused more on offense and transition than shot blocking.

The Rangers were the toast of the east for the majority of the season, but it didn’t stop them from dealing Ryan Callahan and a first round draft pick for reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Marty St. Louis. The move looked odd at first, but the sage veteran led Rangers forwards in scoring during the run to the Stanley Cup Final with eight goals and seven assists for 15 points.

It is at this moment when they faltered, because instead of building upon a contending roster, they foolishly allocated resources that started their decline to where they are today.

Spending money on Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle over key top pairing defender Anton Stralman was absurd. It was also unwise to allocate cap space to Tanner Glass, who happened to be one of the worst forwards in the league. They also dealt Lee Stempniak away at the trade deadline and while the addition of Keith Yandle was an understandable move, he wasn’t used to the best of his abilities.

Yandle was given third pairing minutes, and was used sparingly on the power play. That trend continued in the 2015-16 season and it is something the Rangers will regret.

The Rangers ultimately fell short in a second consecutive season, and two shutouts in Game 5 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final were just unacceptable. It is fair to say that the Rangers didn’t learn from their mistakes, and truly believed that a healthy Mats Zuccarello would have made the difference. The defensive shortcomings were ignored then, and once again at this year’s deadline when Eric Staal was acquired instead of a blue liner or two.

If you need to see why the Rangers failed, here are three pictures that tell the entire story when it comes to the Rangers and the playoffs since Henrik Lundqvist has been between the pipes.

 

The Rangers’ recent transaction history documents their two schools of thought.

It’s fair to say that the Rangers abandoned their youth movement a year or two too soon, and entered their contending era too soon by making plays for top talent without a formidable surrounding cast.

It’s fair to say that the Rangers’ run to the Conference Final in 2012 was a bit lucky, and their elimination in the second round of the 2013 playoffs represented where they were.

A lot is made of the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, but it is important to remember that the franchise was down 3-to-1 and went on a magical run fueled by emotion.

 

It’s also fair to speculate that if Stralman was still with the Rangers, they would have made a second consecutive Final appearance. He was a key contributor to the Tampa blue line, and without him it’s hard to see the Lightning making it as far as they did.

This year, the Rangers failed to learn from their experiences from the conference final, and it could be said that was a major reason they failed this season.

Lack of speed and an efficient blue line was a problem against Tampa last year, and it was thoroughly exposed by the Penguins again. Who would have thought that Carl Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot would have been as missed as much as they were?

It’s easy to appreciate their contributions now, when Glass, Jesper Fast and Viktor Stalberg took normal shifts in their place.

If there is any positive to take away from the Rangers’ embarrassment at the hands of Pittsburgh it is that at the very least it appears that management realizes the need to make some major changes. Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported that management realizes the need for an infusion of youth and an expulsion of some of the core. The amount of change that occurs remains to be seen, but whatever happens next lets hope the Rangers stick to it.

No one envies the job of Jeff Gorton right now, and it will be interesting to see what his first step will be toward rebuilding the Rangers. Since fans have be waiting for 22 years to win a Stanley Cup, another few years will feel like nothing if the end product is a true contender every year.

Stats via Hockey-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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