After years of toiling away in relative mediocrity, the New York Rangers finally got over the proverbial hump last season and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. While most pundits had their money on the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, it was the Blueshirts who surprised the hockey world and advanced to the big dance.
Unfortunately for Alain Vigneault's troops, the Rangers were unable to get through the vaunted Los Angeles Kings, who took care of the Rangers in five games, capped off by a thrilling game-winning, series-winning, Cup-winning overtime goal by Kings defenseman Alec Martinez in double OT.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather could have tried to improve his lineup this summer by keeping the main core together while trying to hold on to a couple of his key complementary players. Unfortunately for Sather and the Rangers, cap space became an issue - so much so that he had to cut ties with centre Brad Richards, who was making way too much money for what he was bringing to the team.
While the Rangers can still lean on top 3 goaltender "King" Henrik Lundqvist, there are several holes in the Rangers lineup that were opened and not dealt with during the offseason that will make the Rangers chances of returning to the Finals very bleak.
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3 The Missing Pieces
The Rangers are missing a multitude of key players from their Finals run last season. The 2014 Rangers playoff roster included names like Richards (who struggled all year but is a known playoff performer), along with other forwards Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Dan Carcillo, and Derek Dorsett, along with defenseman Anton Stralman and Michael Del Zotto.
The majority of that group (excluding Carcillo) had excellent playoff runs. For the purpose of this article, though, the focus will be on the Rangers getting back to the playoffs, because right now, it's not looking too good - they sit fourth in the Metropolitan division behind Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Washington, and fourth in the wild race behind Toronto, Boston and Florida. Suffice to say, that's a lot of teams to worry about leapfrogging in the standings.
This season's edition of the Blueshirts features replacements like Lee Stempniak, Kevin Hayes, Anthony Duclair, Tanner Glass, Jesper Fast, along with defensemen Matt Hunwick and Dan Boyle (who's been injured for most of the year).
Last season, the group of now departed Rangers (Richards, Pouliot, Boyle, Carcillo, Dorsett, Stralman and Del Zotto) combined for a total of 140 regular season points. At their current pace, the group of current Rangers (Stempniak, Hayes, Duclair, Glas, Fast, Hunwick and Boyle) "individually" will come nowhere near the point totals put up by their counterparts last season. Most importantly are Hayes and Stempniak, who are both projected to finish with approximately 34 points each at their current pace - last season Richards had 51 and Pouliot had 36. Rookie Anthony Duclair had a hot start, but he has cooled off and hasn't played as much - he's looking at a 28 point season at this clip, which is more than Dorsett and Carcillo combined, but it doesn't help the Rangers much if he's expected to product like a top-line player.
2 Problems Between the Pipes
Last season, the Rangers were able to rely on a solid group of forwards, tight defense and outstanding goaltending - perhaps the team's biggest issue (or area of concern, at the very least) this season. Last season, Lundqvist finished the year with 33 wins, a .920 save percentage and a 2.36 GAA. His backup, Cam Talbot, was solid in relief, posting 12 wins, a sparkling .941 save percentage and a miniscule 1.64 GAA.
This season, their stat lines are shining a little less brightly - Lundqvist is lugging around a .911 save percentage and a 2.51 GAA, while Talbot hasn't been much better with his chances, with a decent .921 save percentage and 2.34 GAA (but both stats showing clear massive dips in production from last season). What's worse is Lundqvist is only projected to finish with only 30 wins if he plays 60 games this season. It's unclear how many starts he'll finish with, but it's clear the Rangers aren't afraid to go to Talbot if they need too - and the Rangers as a whole aren't able to lean on the goaltending the way they were last season, if the stat lines don't start trending better in the very near future.
1 Better Competition in the Metropolitan
Throughout the past several years, the Rangers have not only been competitive in their division thanks to their deep and balanced lineup, but have also been able to "feed on the weak."
Each of the past two seasons, the Rangers have been able to take advantage of a relatively weak division en route to a high win percentages against teams within their division:
Rangers vs. Metropolitan Division, 2013-2014
vs. New York Islanders: 3-2, 6 PTS (.600 Win %)
vs. New Jersey Devils: 2-2-1, 5 PTS (.500 Win %)
vs. Washington Capitals: 2-2, 4 PTS (.500 Win %)
These three teams are key because these are the three teams the Rangers will have to contend with within their own division if they want to earn a "division" playoff berth. The Penguins are an elite NHL franchise and will, barring a complete collapse, make the playoffs with relative ease. The Islanders have been the cellar dwellers of this division several years, but this year Jack Capuano's squad has seemingly "figured it out," in large part due to the return of John Tavares, the surprising Brock Nelson, and the fact that Jaroslav Halak is a half-decent NHL goaltender, something the Isles haven't had in awhile.
The Devils have improved by virtue of getting rid of Martin Brodeur and letting Cory Schneider handle the load, and the Capitals have learned to play a little defense to go along with letting Alexander Ovechkin shoot enough times to score 50 goals (which is exactly what Barry Trotz was brought in to do).
If that wasn't enough, the rest of the conference seems to have picked up the slack as well. The Toronto Maple Leafs have slowly but surely begun to establish themselves as a legitimate playoff threat in the East, and with the Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning seemingly taking over control of the Atlantic, the Boston Bruins are suddenly looking at fighting for a wild-card spot as well.
If the current pace continues, that means the Rangers not only have to worry about passing at least one of Washington or the Islanders in their own division, they also have to take notice of teams currently ahead of them like Boston, Toronto, and the surprising Florida Panthers - while also making sure not to forget about the teams chasing them, like the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Philadelphia Flyers.
Overall, the Rangers have had a poor start out of the gate and have dug themselves a bit of a hole. There is still plenty of racetrack left, but even if the Rangers do make it to the playoffs, can anyone foresee them getting through teams like Tampa, Pittsburgh, Detroit or Montreal with this quality of goaltending they've got so far and a lack of offense?
The way they are going now, though, they might not even have to worry about a playoff series in April - let alone a Finals return in June.
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