Rangers offseason crucial to future


It’s been a while since so much depended on the NHL Draft for the Rangers. A team used to postseason success, they failed to qualify for the playoffs for just the second time since Henrik Lundqvist was a rookie in ’05-06. They finished dead last in the Metro Division with 77 points.

As a result, they’ll pick ninth overall in the first round of this Friday’s 2018 NHL Draft. In a rebuild for the first time with Lundqvist the starting goalie, it’ll be interesting to see what Rangers GM Jeff Gorton decides to do this offseason. Having acquired extra picks in the first three rounds, it’s a chance to change the script.

In so many past summers, the Rangers were devoid of a surplus of draft picks. This was due to former architect Glen Sather sacrificing first round picks and even second rounders in trades for proven stars such as Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis and Keith Yandle. All moves that risked youth in an attempt to go for it. None which can be criticized with a prime Lundqvist on the roster. He did overpay for St. Louis but the team made its only Stanley Cup appearance since 1994. They didn’t get it done, losing to the Kings in 2014.

The risk of doing business this way finally came back to haunt them. Former coach Alain Vigneault ran out of time to keep the team competitive. The turning point remains the no show in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final. A Lightning 2-0 shutout at MSG that basically ended a run of three Conference Final trips in four years. A gut wrenching six-game second round series loss to Ottawa in 2016 should’ve been a signal for a coaching change. Instead, management kept Vigneault too long, resulting in the team’s worst season since the pre-lockout Dark Ages Era.

Now, a new era is upon us. Former Boston University head man David Quinn takes over as coach, making the leap from the college ranks to the NHL. Something that’s been done recently by Dave Hakstol in Philadelphia. There haven’t been many college coaches to make the jump. Quinn gets his first chance as a NHL bench boss in the Big Apple. An opportunity he couldn’t pass up after much thought and consideration.

With Quinn still an assistant coach short on his staff, that should be decided very soon. Lindy Ruff has been retained as a bird’s eye view. What role he’ll have remains to be seen. He brings experience. Hopefully, he’ll have a more positive influence than his first year under Vigneault, whose defensive system chased away Ulf Samuelsson and Jeff Beukeboom. Who else will be added? Benoit Allaire is still the goalie coach. A must given the success he’s had.

While filling out the staff is a must, the most important thing is what the organization decides between this draft weekend and July when free agency begins. Gorton has his work cut out for him. With a number of key restricted’s due raises, including Kevin Hayes, he must decide which players are worth investing in. Hayes improved in a shutdown checking role, scoring a career high 25 goals. He excelled as a match-up center who improved on face-offs, and was a fixture on the penalty kill. Does he get Chris Kreider money on a new contract that could buy up free agent years? Or is it a shorter term due to a surplus of centers thanks to teenagers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil? What roles will the two 2017 first round picks have?

Mika Zibanejad is the clearcut first line center due to his talent. He hit 27 goals last season despite missing time due to a concussion. He was a fixture on the power play netting 14 of his 27 goals on the man-advantage. The shoot first righty pivot must improve at five-on-five when matched up against opponents’ best players. He is capable of scoring 30 goals and reaching between 65-70 points. He’ll be leaned on in more of a leadership role on a rebuilding club not expected to make the playoffs.

Assuming Hayes stays, he’ll be one of those veterans looked upon to provide leadership. Chris Kreider remains the team’s most impactful forward. After returning from rib resection surgery due to a blood clot, he was a different player. The 27-year old showed more consistency towards the end of last season, scoring and setting up goals while playing a more determined game. Off the ice, he was willing to talk candidly to reporters about the youthful mistakes from some of the newcomers, keeping a more positive mindset. Possessing the size, speed and strength, Kreider will be looked to for more consistency in production. He’s fully capable of 30 goals and 30 assists while providing the net front presence he developed under Vigneault. If he takes that next step finally, you could be looking at the next Rangers captain.

Veteran playmaker Mats Zuccarello is expected to return for the ’18-19 season. Entering the final year of a contract with an AAV of $4.5 million, he’ll turn 31 on Sept. 1 before training camp. The pint sized Norwegian with the big heart remains a capable scorer, who prefers to set up teammates. He didn’t shoot the puck enough last season and saw his defensive play slip. He still led the team in scoring with 53 points. Playing for a new contract, there’s plenty of motivation for Zucc. A intense player who admittedly plays like a rat due to his size, he isn’t a top line guy anymore. He’s better suited in a secondary role on the second line. He’ll still get power play time but needs to not be so predictable.

Even though I believe Pavel Buchnevich needs to improve certain aspects of his game, he should get first crack on the first line with Zibanejad and Kreider. His career best 29 assists and 43 points are good. The 14 goals are a little low due to a reluctance to shoot. I’d like to see the third-year Russian look shot more and get to 20 goals. His passing acumen is high, especially on the power play. Thirty to thirty-five assists should be attainable. He’ll need to improve his physicality. At times, he was taken off the puck too easily. Becoming a strong player will help his development.

In assessing the direction they’ll take, much depends on key decisions with other RFA’s including former Boston University alum Jimmy Vesey, Ryan Spooner, Vladislav Namestnikov, and 24-year old defenseman Brady Skjei. Gorton could decide to sign Skjei to a smart long-term cap friendly deal. Though I’m not sold on him as a top pair guy based off last season. He enters Year Three looking to improve. Vesey can be given a short-term deal to prove himself under a college coach familiar with him. He has the size and work ethic but must find consistency. There’s no reason he can’t become a 20-25 goalscorer in a more defined role.

Spooner and Namestnikov are the wildcards. Spoon Man is a year away from unrestricted free agency, producing four goals and 12 assists after coming over from Boston. He could have more value as a trade chip to move up. Namestnikov was a disaster with four points in 19 contests following the blockbuster with Tampa that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Bolts for prospects Libor Hajek and Brett Howden. The deal also includes a second round pick this year and a conditional first next year if Tampa wins the Stanley Cup.

On a team devoid of elite talent, Gorton’s main priority is to land a impact player at the Draft. Can he parlay the ninth overall pick, extra picks and possibly Spooner or Namestnikov to move into the top four? Forwards Filip Zadina, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Oliver Wahlstrom all await. Adam Boqvist, Quinn Hughes, Noah Dobson and Evan Bouchard all are available as defensemen.

With uncertainty surrounding a paper thin free agent class that could become thinner if John Tavares and John Carlson re-sign before July 1, there’s not much out there. Not unless Gorton thinks he can land a proven scorer like James van Riemsdyk or gritty veteran such as James Neal. There’s not much to be had. I wouldn’t mind toughening up the fourth line with either Antoine Roussel or Ryan Reaves. This team lacks grit. For proof, look how the Capitals won. Not only with skill but the annoying Tom Wilson, and Devante Smith-Pelly.

To succeed in this league, you need a combination of both skill and physicality. If you don’t have players (Boyle, Moore, Girardi, Staal) willing to get the jersey dirty, you will be easy to play against. A lesson learned from the recent vanilla Vigneault rosters. It needs to be built in Quinn’s personality. He emphasizes defense. Let’s see how it translates this summer.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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