Moving Forward: After being eliminated by the Devils, Rangers continue the process

It finally happened. The Rangers were officially eliminated from the postseason due to the Devils winning 4-3 over the Hurricanes. That made it the first time since 2010 there will be no playoffs.

Unlike that painful ending which went to Game 82 and a silly shootout in Philadelphia, this one was much easier to take. We knew it was coming. So, I don’t feel the least bit upset over it. It’s been inevitable for a month since GM Jeff Gorton made the smart decision to sell at the deadline by acquiring both prospects and draft picks for Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash and Nick Holden.

With an eye towards the future, the Blueshirts have three first round picks including their own along with Boston’s and Tampa’s. So, they get one shot at the NHL Lottery. Even if it’s not good odds, it at least gives fans something to watch during the playoffs. It’s usually in the second round or third round.

Already we’ve seen a few young players come up from Hartford or via trade and show what they can do. Defenseman Neal Pionk has stood out. In 22 games, the right skating D has posted a goal and 13 assists and minus-one rating. He had a recent seven-game point streak (1-9-10) snapped in a 4-2 home loss to the Caps. At the very least, he looks like a second pair defenseman who should be in the top four. Though he’ll need to get stronger in the summer.

Before a injury ended his season, Tony DeAngelo was starting to come around. The minus-18 not withstanding, the smooth skating right defenseman has the puck skills to be a solid contributor offensively. He finished with eight assists in 32 contests. Not the biggest in stature, the former Lightning 2014 first round pick is still trying to figure it out. Having come over as part of the trade that sent Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes that also landed first round pick Lias Andersson, the 22-year old will have a chance to prove he belongs next training camp.

Other candidates for next season’s revamped blueline are speedy lefty John Gilmour, stay at home type Rob O’Gara and former Boston prospect Ryan Lindgren who recently signed and already had a goal and assist in his first two pro games with Hartford. He’s only 20 and was taken in the second round 49th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Assuming Marc Staal is back for veteran leadership following a bounce back year, he and Kevin Shattenkirk would be the experienced players on the back end unless Brendan Smith resurfaces. Brady Skjei is due a raise this summer and will help anchor the D. He’s still learning in what’s been a more challenging second season with coach Alain Vigneault giving him more ice-time since McDonagh departed.

Up front, Mika Zibanejad has proven he’s capable of becoming a 30-goal top center. The chemistry he has with emerging power wing Chris Kreider is undeniable. Fourteen of Zibanejad’s team-leading 27 goals have come on the power play. His 46 points rank second behind Mats Zuccarello in team scoring despite missing time due to a concussion. It took him a while to get on track following his return.

Kreider, who was recently nominated by the Rangers for the Bill Masterton Trophy due to coming back from a blood clot in his right arm that required a rib resection which caused him to miss 24 games. He’s been superb since coming back tallying four goals and 10 assists in 15 games. He’s become a leader on the team and is a candidate for the ‘A’ next Fall.

Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast have both performed well. Hayes sacrificed offense to go head to head with the league’s top lines. He has improved his face off percentage and become a better shooter posting a career best 21 goals with a plus-one rating and 18 helpers. Fast has proven he can play a bigger role fitting in well with Zibanejad and Kreider on the first line. He recently (3-7-10) had a career best eight-game point streak snapped that featured a career high three-point outing (2-1-3). His 13 goals and 31 points are career highs.

Sophomores Pavel Buchnevich (14-28-42) and Jimmy Vesey (17-9-26) are building blocks who each can improve. Buchnevich with shooting the puck and Vesey with finding consistency and passing the puck. The latter is one of five crucial restricted free agents this summer. The others include Hayes, Skjei, ex-Bruin Ryan Spooner and former Bolt Vladislav Namestnikov if he isn’t rerouted.

With both first round picks Andersson and Filip Chytil each recording their first NHL points on Monday, there’s a lot to look forward to in the final six games. The two teenagers should both play the remainder including tonight’s Rivalry Night rematch in D.C. and a emotional final home game Friday versus Tampa with ex-Rangers McDonagh and Miller returning on Steven McDonald night. It should be quite a evening.

With top goalie prospect Igor Shestyorkin at least a year away playing for SKA St. Petersburg in Russia and Alexandar Georgiev making a nice cameo which could lead to the backup position, there’s plenty for our fans to like moving forward. Get ready for more fireworks in June and July.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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