Winds of change coming to Rangers after early playoff exit
GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) Change is coming to the New York Rangers, and it probably will hit the core group that carried the team deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs the past two seasons.
It's the price of failing miserably when expectations are high.
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and making the Eastern Conference Final last year, coach Alain Vigneault felt Ryan McDonagh, Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Rick Nash, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello had one more chance to grab the Cup. His hopes were buoyed by the addition of Eric Staal at the trading deadline.
While the group got 101 points in an up-and-down regular season, the postseason was a flop. The Pittsburgh Penguins dispatched the Rangers in five games in the first round, with the last two games blowouts.
''Now, obviously, there is going to be some changes,'' Vigneault said Tuesday after meeting with players at the team's practice facility. ''There are still some very good pieces. We have to decide in which direction we're going to take.''
Vigneault said he and general manager Jeff Gorton will take their time before making any moves with a team that had the NHL's best regular-season record a year ago.
''Being so close the last couple of years, you don't get that close without the sense of missed opportunity,'' defenseman Marc Staal said. ''As far as windows closing, I believe when you have a group in here like this, and you are talented enough and are working in the right direction, and you get in the playoffs, you always have a chance.''
The Rangers didn't have any chance after losing Game 3. The Penguins were a faster, more prolific team that made Lundqvist look ordinary in goal.
Lundqvist took the blame for a porous defense, saying he just didn't make the plays. As for the team, he warned against overreacting.
''This game is about determination and how much you want it,'' the 34-year-old goalie said. ''You talk about age, I want it as bad now as 10 years ago, maybe even more. That will be my biggest motivation moving forward. I look around this room, we have a lot of young players, skilled players who can play a big part for this club.''
Stepan said cleaning out the lockers early is not fun.
''We certainly went out the way we didn't want to,'' he said. ''It stinks the way we went out. I have full belief in this group. This group has proven we like to win hockey games, especially late in the year. We just weren't able to do it this year. It will make us hungrier next year.''
The are some issues the Rangers need to address in the offseason:
SUSPECT DEFENSE: Too many times the Rangers relied on Lundqvist to save them, and more often than not he did, expect in the playoffs. This was a group that gave up too many odd-man rushes, left opponents uncovered in front of the net or simply had miscommunications. Girardi ($5.5 million next season) and Marc Staal ($5.7 million) didn't have their best seasons and McDonagh hurt his hand before the playoffs and wasn't himself. The bright spot was the play of rookie Brady Skjei, who was outstanding as a late call-up for the postseason. He'll be around a long time.
INCONSISTENCY: If there was a constant in the season, it was the ups and downs. While they had 101 points, the Rangers never looked like the dominating team from the year before. New York was a Cup contender the previous two season because it was good more often than not. That didn't happen this season, and the team heads home in April.
FREE AGENCY: Defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle, forwards Eric Staal, Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg and goaltender Antti Raanta are all free agents. The Rangers probably don't have enough money to keep Yandle or Staal. Boyle, 39, is considering retirement but won't be back even if he decides to play. Moore, Stalberg and Raanta can be back if the price is right.
REST: For the first time in a while, the Rangers are going to have nearly four months to rest for next season. In the previous four seasons, the team had played 76 playoffs games.
There were some people who felt the extended playoff runs caught up with New York this year.
''I don't think it affects you in a playoff round where you get beaten that badly,'' Marc Staal said of this year's failure. ''We were just outplayed and it has nothing to do with fatigue, mental fatigue. That team was playing better than us.''
BRIGHT SPOTS: Zuccarello might have been the biggest surprise, coming back from a throat injury to score 26 goals and a team-high 61 points. J.T Miller also had a career year with 22 goals and 43 points. Stepan (22 goals) and Brassard (27 goals) had good seasons, although Kevin Hayes (14 goals) took a step back and Chris Kreider, who everyone thought would take a major step, seemed to stand still with 21 goals. Nash had 15 goals in an injury-marred season, but he did get a couple in the postseason.