Off-season report: Retooled Rangers hard pressed to duplicate success
Everything went right last spring as the Rangers made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in two decades, but things have not gone as smoothly since they lost in five games to the Kings. New York didn’t suffer heavy losses in free agency, but the club did lose a few key players, including second-six center Brian Boyle, who signed a three-year, $6 millon deal with the Lightning. Boyle is the perfect example of a player who overachieves in the postseason to the point where his value to other teams increases. Along with the losses, the Rangers also failed to land a major free agent, so the their prospects for winning the Eastern Conference title for a second straight season aren’t great.
Besides Boyle, New York also lost several other depth players on July 1, the opening day of free agency, including forward Benoit Pouliot and defenseman Anton Stralman. This was in addition to a loss that the club already knew was coming: the Rangers’ exercised a compliance buyout of center Brad Richards, their unofficial captain, to free up $6.675 million in cap space. New York had already parted with captain Ryan Callahan in the trade for Marin St. Louis in March. Nobody wore the C after Callahan’s departure, and the Rangers’ are sure to miss miss Richards’s steady leadership.
Pouliot inked a generous five-year, $20 million contract with the Oilers, his sixth team. With New York, Pouliot scored 15 goals with 21 assists, and then had ten points in the playoffs. The Rangers will miss his speed and his ability to recover pucks on which other players have given up. He was a second- or third-liner in New York who will command more playing time in Edmonton, where he’ll also have some talented young forwards by his side.
Boyle and Stralman, meanwhile, combined to miss only one game all last season. Stralman became more dependable as the year progressed. Boyle upped his game in the playoffs, though he was unhappy with being demoted to the club’s fourth line.
So who’s left? Several core players, including ace goalie Henrik Lundqvist; defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal; and forwards Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, who both hit rough patches in 2013–14. Nash’s scoring touch vanished in the playoffs last spring, when the club needed it most.
On the other hand, after a rough start following his trade, Martin St. Louis put together a fine playoff run that saw the team rally around him in the wake of his mother’s untimely death. Even though St. Louis is pushing 40, he still has some zip left. With 981 career points, he’ll likely reach 1,000 before Jan. 1.
The Rangers were able to keep free-agent forward Derick Brassard this summer, signing the center to a five-year, $25 million deal on July 27. New York also re-upped Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, forwards with speed to burn. Though technically a rookie last year, Kreider already has 41 playoff games under his belt. Zuccarello, a 26-year-old Norwegian, is coming off a 59-point season. The problem now is that with bigger salaries for all three players, the Rangers will be hard-pressed to make a deadline deal next March. Brassard had 45 points in his first full season in Gotham. He’ll see increased time replacing Richards as the No. 2 center. Forward Dominic Moore also re-signed with the team—one of the over-performing role players New York was able to keep.
And while the Rangers lost Brian Boyle, they did add smooth-skating defenseman Dan Boyle, formerly of the Sharks, to replace Stralman on the right side. Boyle is a fitness junkie, but he’s also 38. Nevertheless, the Rangers hope that Boyle, a skilled vet with 144 goals in his career—including 66 on the power play—can help cure some of the team’s ills with the man advantage. Okay, but San Jose’s power play ranked just 20th in the league last season, five places behind New York. And unlike St. Louis, who caught a second wind during the playoffs, Boyle began to show some signs of wear in the postseason.
The Rangers added some forward depth by signing 31-year-old free agent Lee Stempniak, who has scored 150 goals in 637 regular-season games. He put up adequate numbers after joining the Penguins for the last 21 games of the season, but he has never been an overly physical player and his playoff numbers— two goals and three assists in just 24 career games—are underwhelming. Tanner Glass, also formerly of Pittsburgh, will see some time as a scrappy fourth-liner, but he isn’t a game-changer. Neither is forward Matthew Lombardi, a veteran of five NHL teams, whom New York signed after one year in the Swiss League.
At a time when the Rangers could have used an influx of size and skill, they added neither to any great degree, even after making cap space by buying out Richards. This is still a good team, but to get back to the Stanley Cup finals again, New York is going to need to be even more resourceful this season.