Sophomore Derek Stepan (left) scored 17 goals this season, but the Rangers need to land a top-tier sniper. (Photo by Travis Golby/NHLI via Getty Images)
The New York Rangers couldn’t stage a repeat of their 1994 Game 6 rally over the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final, as they were eliminated from the playoffs with a 3-2 overtime loss on Friday.
It was a heartbreaking finish for the Rangers, who entered the post-season as the first seed in the Eastern Conference. Two hard-fought series against the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals, however, sapped the Blueshirts’ energy, putting them at a disadvantage to the rested Devils, who outplayed them for most of conference final.
The Rangers’ hard-working, never-say-die post-season effort, especially against the Devils, earned them considerable praise, providing New York fans and pundits with optimism for the club’s future.
Still, the Rangers’ playoff run also highlighted problem areas on the roster which must be addressed if they’re to build on this season’s success.
Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News listed landing another scoring forward, improving the defensive depth and bulking up on the wings among the priorities for GM Glen Sather this summer.
The Rangers currently have more than $49 million committed to 15 players next season. Expectations are they could have as much as $20 million in cap space to work with this summer when the cap increases, though the actual number under the next collective bargaining agreement remains to be determined.
The New York Post’s Larry Brooks, as well as Arthur Staple and Steve Zipay of Newsday, had several suggestions to address the need for more scoring.
One is revisiting the Rick Nash trade talks with Columbus, which fell through prior to the February trade deadline. Zipay also floated the notion of pursuing Anaheim Ducks right winger (and New Jersey native) Bobby Ryan.
Sather has the assets and cap space to swing a significant acquisition for someone like Nash. But Ryan isn’t believed available, though if the Ducks were to put him on the market, the Rangers would be among the frontrunners.
What Sather won’t do, however, is overpay for such talent, as the Blue Jackets discovered when they tried to squeeze him for more than he was willing to give up for Nash.
Free agency is another possibility, with Devils captain Zach Parise topping everyone’s list in that regard.
Uncertainty over the future of concussed defenseman Michael Sauer led Brooks to suggest the need for someone to play the right side with defenseman Marc Staal. If Sather pursues Nashville’s Ryan Suter, Brooks believes he’ll have to shed one or two significant salaries to bring in a big-name scorer.
As for the Rangers’ own free agents, it’s expected Sather will re-sign restricted free agent blueliner Michael Del Zotto and unrestricted free agents like backup goalie Martin Biron, physical left winger Brandon Prust and possibly left winger Ruslan Fedotenko.
It remains to be seen, however, if RFA forward Mats Zuccarello and defenseman Anton Stralman have futures with the Blueshirts. There are rumors Zuccarello could head to the Kontinental League, while Stralman could be the odd man out if Sather opts to promote promising Tim Erixon.
Left winger Brandon Dubinsky’s future with the Rangers is also murky. He’s entering the second year of a four-year deal at a $4.2-million cap hit, but his 10 goals and 34 points were well below last season’s career-best 24 goals and 54 points.
Dubinsky was mentioned in the Nash talks in February and it’s possible he could become a trade candidate if Sather decides to add a scorer.
The key for Sather is not to shake things up too much. He’ll obviously try to add another top-line scorer and perhaps another top-two defenseman, but not at the risk of gutting his depth and upsetting team chemistry.
That’s where free agency could be the better route than a major trade, since all Sather would be parting with is money instead of roster assets or draft picks. When it comes to spending money, everyone knows that’s not a problem for the wealthy Rangers.
Even in today’s salary cap world, the Rangers remain a preferred destination for the top free agent stars, as the signing last summer of Brad Richards attests.
Sather will be busy in June and early July searching for those key components to make his Rangers a Cup contender next season.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla's Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.