Henrik Lundqvist (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
After years of contending for the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers find themselves in that unenviable netherworld of not being a serious contender, but not being in a position where they can do a proper rebuild.
When the New York Rangers cleaned out their stalls Tuesday morning, defenseman Dan Boyle cursed out a couple of reporters he felt were unfairly critical of him and refused to start his breakup interview until they left the scrum. We’re going to chalk that up to a proud veteran who is going down swinging and will probably look at that incident after second sober thought with regret.
But in a way, Boyle and his rant – which will almost certainly be his last as an NHL player – provide a microcosm of the situation that is facing his soon-to-be-former team. Boyle could have gone quietly into the night or he could have come out with one last flurry. He chose the latter.
Now it’s up to the Rangers to decide whether they will do the same. After a five-game defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in which the total margin of victory in the games the Penguins won was 13 goals, the Rangers are at a crossroads. And not really in a good way. As presently constructed, the Rangers are in that purgatory in which many teams find themselves – good, but not good enough to seriously contend. It’s a spot that leaves its occupants in that awkward spot of having neither any legitimate hope of a championship nor any shot at the top-level young talent it needs to rebuild.
The Rangers have an all-world goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. He is under contract for another five seasons at a cap hit of $8.5 million, but realistically he likely only has two, maybe three, more as an elite stopper. So how do the Rangers handle that? Do they continue to scorch the earth looking for aging stars that might help put them over the top and give Lundqvist a chance at the Stanley Cup or do they start to rebuild this thing by injecting younger players in the lineup?
Neither of them is easy or particularly palatable. It’s all well and good to say the Rangers need to get younger, but how exactly are they going to do that? They’ve already traded their first- and second-round picks this June and dealt away their second-rounder in 2017. In our recent Future Watch edition, the Rangers finished dead last, with only one prospect in the top 50, left winger Pavel Buchnevich. Scorching the earth is exactly what got the Rangers to where they are today.
And the Rangers are very close to occupying salary cap hell. They have just over $55 million committed to just 13 players next season, and that’s before they re-sign their own restricted free agents Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Dylan McIlrath. They’ve got Ryan McDonagh at a huge bargain, but that’s offset by their $5.5 million commitment for the next four years to Dan Girardi, one of the poorest producing players in the league from an analytics standpoint. Of the 10 players they have under contract for multiple seasons going forward, seven of them are 28 or older, which is the cut-off point for the vast majority of players before they start trending downward. And every one of them has some form or a non-trade or no-movement clause in his deal.
It’s hard to argue with the way the Rangers have done things to this point. Since missing the playoffs in 2009-10 through last season, they played in a total of 13 playoff series. That’s the same number as the Chicago Blackhawks, one more than the Los Angeles Kings and two more than the Boston Bruins. The only difference, of course, is all three of those teams have at least one Stanley Cup to show for their efforts in that time span.
But the Rangers boldly went for it and came very close to the ultimate prize a couple of times. Even though they lost a a lot of futures in the process, you can’t fault them for seizing the moment. There are probably about 25 other teams in the NHL that would like to have enjoyed the run the Rangers have had the past six seasons.
Would the Rangers have been a better team this season with Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Kerby Rychel (the player who was taken with the first-round pick that was included in the Rick Nash deal), Anthony Duclair and the two first-round and three second-round picks that were dealt for Nash, Keith Yandle and Eric Staal? It’s difficult to say they would. Would the Rangers’ future look better with those players? It’s impossible to acknowledge it wouldn’t.
These kinds of moves always, always come back to even things out. And that is what’s happening to the New York Rangers now. You have to wonder if the window for a championship hasn’t already slammed shut.