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Rangers blew golden opportunity, and now are bound for NHL purgatory

The Rangers came up short despite a clear path to the conference final. With no top prospects coming and some bad contracts, they need to make some tough decisions.

If you’re a member of the New York Rangers today, you’re reviewing what happened over the past two weeks and you probably can’t get it out of your mind that you’ve allowed an incredible opportunity slip through your fingers. This one is going to sting. For a long, long time.

How often would a team finish fourth in its own division, then get gifted the first two rounds of the playoffs by being able to avoid the three teams ahead of them until the Eastern Conference final? How often is the NHL’s post-season tournament this wide open? How often are you going to play a team where the best player is limping on one foot and the starting goaltender is that erratic?

This was the most confounding, least justifiable playoff loss for the Rangers in quite some time. Since the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, the Rangers have won a total of 11 playoff rounds, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2014. That’s the same number of rounds the San Jose Sharks have won and fewer than only two teams in that time span – the Chicago Blackhawks (16) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (14, 15 if they defeat the Washington Capitals Wednesday night).

But now, not only do they have no Stanley Cups to show for it, they’re also a team in transition. You look at their roster and it screams good, but not great, certainly not good enough to seriously compete for a Stanley Cup. You have an elite goaltender who had one of the worst statistical regular seasons of his career, was spectacular in the first round and pretty good in the second round. And when the 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist looked down the ice and watched the Senators celebrating, he had to be wondering whether his best days with the Rangers have officially come to a close.

For the better part of the past decade, the Rangers have been more than the sum of their parts. They’ve been able to surprise a lot of people, win a lot of games and prevail in a lot of series due to a triumph of the collective over the individual. But that collective is fraying, some might suggest rapidly, and in a league where it seems more and more imperative to be driven by a small group of super-elite players, the Rangers have none. Nor does there seem to be any on the horizon, judging by the fact they finished 29th in THN’s recent Future Watch rankings.

The Rangers are a shutdown team that can’t seem to shut anyone down anymore. For example, did you know that there have been 10 6-on-5 goals scored in this year’s playoffs and the Rangers have been victimized for four of them? Their shutdown defense pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi was on the ice for the following goals: the game-winner with 4:11 remaining in Game 1; Ottawa’s fourth goal with 3:19 remaining and its fifth with 1:52 left to tie a game in which they blew a two-goal lead; and, the overtime goal against in Game 5. Derek Stepan, who is supposed to be the Rangers top two-way center, was also on the ice for the game-winner in Game 1, the overtime winner in Game 2 and the tying goal with 1:26 remaining in Game 5.

The Rangers essentially have a center ice corps that consists of Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg. Again, going back to post-lockout, there have been seven teams that have won the Stanley Cup and none of them has done so without at least one world-class centerman. In the case of the Penguins, they have two.

So what do the Rangers do now? Well, it’s going to be very, very difficult to even remain where they are. They have a number of problem contracts – Stepan with four more years at $6.5 million per, Marc Staal with four more years at $5.7 million, and Girardi with three more years at $5.5 million – chief among them. Buying out either Staal or Girardi would saddle them with a significant cap hit for six or eight more years, but that might be what needs to be done.

The Rangers’ prime target for the expansion draft is almost certainly backup goalie Antti Raanta, who is good and cheap and relatively young and would probably be a great fit for an expansion team. That would be a huge hit for the Rangers, who would then have to find a reliable goaltender to back Lundqvist up, someone who conceivably could carry the No. 1 goaltending duties for a long stretch if Lundqvist has another sub-par regular season.

So do the Rangers try to make a side deal with Vegas that would see the Black Knights stay away from Raanta and choose Stepan instead? That would be as good a place as any for the Rangers to start. But no matter what route they go, the Rangers are probably looking at some significant time in the NHL’s form of purgatory as tweeners who aren’t good enough to seriously compete for a Cup, but are too committed to too many players to preside over a rebuild.




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