NEW YORK – Once the New York Rangers figure out if captain Jaromir Jagr is in their plans, they will either regroup or reload.
Jagr will be a key figure in the coming weeks as the Rangers head into an uncertain future following a disappointing second-round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After a shopping spree last summer in which New York landed prized free-agent centres Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, the time has come to decide if Jagr should be brought back – if he even wants to return – or if the franchise should be built around younger emerging players.
Adding Drury and Gomez to a lineup that already featured veterans Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, along with topflight goalie Henrik Lundqvist, suggested the Rangers were ready to take a step forward. Instead, they appear to have dropped back.
New York has won a playoff round in each of the past two years, only to be bounced out by a higher-seeded team each time. Buffalo did the trick in an exciting six-game series in 2007, and Pittsburgh eliminated the Rangers in five after jumping out to a 3-0 lead.
The 3-2 overtime loss Sunday to the Penguins not only ended the season, but might have marked the final game in Rangers uniforms for impending free-agents Jagr and the 39-year-old Shanahan.
Jagr’s game picked up in the final few weeks of the regular season – in which he totalled only 71 points – and in the playoffs when he posted a stellar 15. But Shanahan wore down. Shanahan scored a goal in Game 1 of the Rangers’ first-round series win over New Jersey, then didn’t have another one.
“After challenging to win in the second round last year, the organization was filled with hope,” Shanahan said. “With the things we did in the off-season, our expectations were high.
“You could argue that maybe us and Pittsburgh were the top two teams in the East. Going into this round of four, we felt like this was going to be our biggest challenge and that, if we got through these guys, we could get to the final. In the end, we set our expectations a lot higher this year.”
Jagr didn’t tip his hand, but he certainly didn’t sound like someone set to hang up his skates. If the Rangers prove not to be an option, the 36-year-old Jagr could look around the NHL for a landing spot or return to Omsk in the Russian League – a team for which he played during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The club has already begun courting him.
“Whatever is going to make me happy, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s going to take time,” Jagr said. “I have to talk to my dad, my friends. They look at it differently than I do. I’m sure they’re going to give me good advice on what I should do.”
If there was any question whether he could still help the Rangers, Jagr’s five-goal, 10-assist outburst in 10 post-season games should have eliminated the doubt. He again looked like the dominant force that nearly earned him league MVP honours two years ago.
He was a salary-cap bargain since arriving in New York in January 2004 because the Washington Capitals picked up a chunk of the cost as part of the trade. There were several performance triggers in Jagr’s contract that would’ve kicked in another affordable season, but none were met.
Jagr and Shanahan aren’t the only players about whom the Rangers have to make decisions. Agitating forward Sean Avery, whose season ended Tuesday after he suffered a lacerated spleen against Pittsburgh, will also be on the open market. He is seeking a long-term deal.
Jagr’s linemate Martin Straka is free, as well, and could opt for retirement after 15 seasons. The Rangers’ defence corps, which will be built around Marc Staal after his fine rookie season, could get an overhaul next season. Michal Rozsival, Paul Mara and Marek Malik all can become free agents on July 1, and none is assured of returning.
Younger and quicker is certainly the model the Rangers are developing, and that could be reason enough to part ways with Jagr and Shanahan. Brandon Dubinsky, who thrived while centring Jagr’s line, and Nigel Dawes each scored 14 goals in their first full NHL seasons. Ryan Callahan also continued to show promise, netting eight goals in his second season that was limited to 52 games by injuries.
Lundqvist became a Vezina Trophy finalist as the league’s top goalie for the third straight year since making his NHL debut. He led the league with 10 shutouts and was fourth with 37 wins, becoming the second player in league history to post 30 wins in each of his first three seasons.
“The next couple of days, you’ll be wondering what you could have done better,” Lundqvist said. “You’re surrounded by a great group. This year was not our year.”