NEW YORK – Last summer, the New York Rangers decided not to bring back aging veterans Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan.
When the season ended with a frustrating 2-1 loss in Game 7 to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night, coach John Tortorella lamented the lack of scoring punch that started the off-season much earlier than he hoped.
“We’re not an offensive juggernaut – and that comes back and bites us,” said Tortorella, who took over for the fired Tom Renney on Feb. 23. “We’re just not developing enough offence.”
Salary cap concerns and the desire to move in a new direction were the main reasons Jagr and Shanahan – both 600-goal scorers – didn’t return to Broadway.
Jagr reached a lucrative deal to play in Russia’s KHL, and Shanahan grew tired of waiting for Rangers general manager Glen Sather to make him a reasonable offer. He ended up signing with the rival New Jersey Devils in mid-January.
The departures also left a leadership void. It was filled, at least in title, when quiet forward Chris Drury was tabbed by Renney to take over for Jagr as captain.
Tortorella was out of work when the decision was made to change the face of the organization. With Jagr and Shanahan gone, responsibility shifted to Drury and Scott Gomez, who came to New York as free agents in 2007, but neither performed on the ice to a high enough level to carry the team.
Both had respectable seasons, but neither centre got to the 60-point mark. As Renney pointed out in the difficult days before his ouster, the Rangers needed to accept the fact that their best chance to win was to eke out 2-1 victories behind all-star goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Markus Naslund left the Vancouver Canucks for a two-year deal with the Rangers, who hoped he would offset the loss of Jagr, and scored 24 goals and 46 points while playing every game this season.
New York scored only 210 goals, tying for the second-fewest in the Eastern Conference – behind only the New York Islanders, who finished with the NHL’s worst record. But the Rangers made up for that somewhat by allowing only 218 – the third-fewest in the East.
Lundqvist held up his end by becoming the first NHL goalie to reach the 30-win mark in each of his first four seasons. He nearly carried the Rangers to an upset victory over the Capitals, but poor performances in Games 5 and 6 when New York had a chance to end the series ultimately doomed the club.
“I feel proud of the guys,” Gomez said. “The way we started the season, the coaching change in the middle, to take these guys to seven.”
The Rangers jumped out to a 3-1 series lead over the Capitals, and Lundqvist posted 1-0 and 2-1 victories in that stretch. He gave up nine goals in the two losses that got Washington even, getting knocked out after two periods in each, before rebounding in the 2-1 defeat that ended the season.
“You could see it on my face,” Lundqvist said after the loss. “It’s tough. I can’t believe the season is over. Out of seven games, maybe they were the better team, but I still think we did a great job.
“I played some intense games, but I have to keep that level of focus I had for the first four games. Be more consistent.”
The Rangers lost a series they led 3-1 for the first time in team history, but they will have to shake that off quickly and move forward. New York has reached the post-season four straight seasons, but has only gotten as far as the second round twice.
The 10-2-1 start under Renney, that was kicked off with a pair of wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Czech Republic, was a distant memory when a 2-7-3 slump dropped the Rangers to sixth in the East and left them in danger of missing the playoffs.
The return of bad boy Sean Avery, and the acquisitions of forward Nik Antropov and defenceman Derek Morris at the trade deadline, provided a boost that helped New York secure the seventh seed.
Avery is signed for the next three seasons, but Antropov and Morris are among a group of a half-dozen key unrestricted free agents this summer. Decisions have to be made if those two will return along with top penalty killer Blair Betts, who sustained a broken orbital bone in the playoffs, defenceman Paul Mara, enforcer Colton Orr, and backup goalie Steve Valiquette.
The Rangers must also figure out if they want to bring back enigmatic forward Nikolai Zherdev, who is a restricted free agent at 24 and endured a series of benchings by Tortorella. He scored 24 goals in the regular season but had no points in the playoffs when New York was outscored 19-11.