After falling short again, what is next for the New York Rangers?
The picture was supposed to be different this time for the New York Rangers. After coming so close last season, this one was supposed to capture them wearing brand new ball caps and draped around each other and a gleaming silver trophy.
Instead, it was the same image that has come to define each of the past four frustrating springs: a dejected Henrik Lundqvist slumped on the bench, lost in a thousand-yard stare.
New York changed the ending alright. Somehow they made it even more painful than the last.
Know this about these Rangers. They have a lot to be proud of. There was the Presidents' Trophy for finishing the regular season with the league's best mark. And there's something to be said for finishing in the top-three in goals for and against and first in five-on-five goals for/against.
In a sober, more contemplative moment, those will be recognized as indicators of how good this team really was.
But they also illustrate how far short the Rangers fell in this failed season.
Yes, failed. The goal wasn't to win two playoff rounds and come thisclose to winning a third. This was the year they were supposed get that 16th victory. There's not a guy in that room who busted his hump all year so he could hold the Presidents' Trophy. It was Stanley Cup or Bust for these Rangers.
And after dropping Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, this year was a bust.
Sure, they can wonder what if. What if Ryan McDonagh's foot hadn't been broken? What if top line winger Mats Zuccarello had been available? But the only important question is this: What will it take to change the ending next season?
The window is only open for so long and as this spring proved there are no guarantees for even the best teams. And since this one didn't get it done, there's sure to be a different look to the Rangers when they take the ice next fall.
Lundqvist will be back next season, although that won't universally be regarded as a positive development. The 33-year-old remains one of the best at his position and he's established himself as a franchise icon. But there's an argument to be made that his $8.5 million cap hit puts too much strain on the team's financial flexibility and that the younger (and cheaper) Cam Talbot could hold down the fort just as well.
Assuming Lundqvist stays, it seems inevitable Talbot will be shopped at a time when his value is high. Any young talent he brings in return would restock a cupboard that's a bit bare and has no first-rounder each of the next two seasons.
All of New York's top-six defensemen are signed through next season, but that doesn't mean they'll all return. The Rangers will have to consider buying out the final year of 38-year-old Dan Boyle's $4.5 million contract. There's also a chance that the long-term deals owed to Marc Staal and Dan Girardi could lead to one of them being sacrificed via trade. Unlikely, sure, but something has to give.
Matt Hunwick, the team's seventh defenseman, is a UFA and likely to be replaced, possibly by Conor Allen or Dylan McIlrath, both of whom are subject to waivers next season. Brady Skjei, the team's recently-signed first pick from the 2012 draft, could be part of the mix at some point although he'll likely start with AHL Hartford.
There will be upheaval in the forward corps as well, especially after the team managed to score just three goals while losing three of four at MSG in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Rangers have just seven forwards under contract for next season: Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Derrick Brassard, Chris Kreider, Dominic Moore, Tanner Glass and Kevin Hayes. The only certainty beyond that group is that Martin St. Louis won't be back. The veteran winger, who turns 40 next month, scored just once in 19 playoff games and rarely threatened to add to that total. He'll become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. James Sheppard, who was largely inconsistent after being picked up from San Jose and was scratched from Game 7, is also likely to depart as a UFA.
The challenge then for general manager Glen Sather will be figuring out how, or if, his four restricted free agents fit into the puzzle. As the team's No. 1 center, Derek Stepan is due for a hefty raise. Carl Hagelin, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller all bring value, but have to settle for more modest increases in order to keep the team cap compliant.
23-year-old Oscar Lindberg is waiting in the wings if a job opens up. Beyond him though? There's not much help banging on the door. This, right now, is New York's time. And that window's not staying open much longer.