After back-to-back Eastern Conference Final berths and a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the New York Rangers stumbled this past season, dropping their first-round playoff series to the eventual Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. The Blueshirts embarked on a summer of retooling with the hope the remaining core has enough gas left in the tank to propel the team on another long playoff run. With the season set to start in less than a week, we’ll soon how the changes made play out on the ice.
Last Season: 46 – 27 – 9, 101 points, third in the Metro Division. Lost in the first-round of the playoffs.
Remaining Cap Space: $2.95MM per Cap Friendly.
Key Newcomers: Mika Zibanejad (Trade – Ottawa); Jimmy Vesey (UFA – Harvard); Josh Jooris (UFA – Calgary); Michael Grabner (UFA – Toronto); Brandon Pirri (UFA – Anaheim); Nick Holden (Trade – Colorado)
[Related: New York Rangers depth chart via Roster Resource]
Players to Watch: Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. The Rangers have for years relied on Girardi and Staal to provide steady play from the back end but last season was a tough one for both blue liners. Henrik Lundqvist faced more High Danger Shots Against (HDSA) than any other goalie in the league, averaging better than one additional HDSA-per-game than Braden Holtby, who was #2. At least part of that was due to the lackluster play of Girardi and Staal and in particular, their struggles in the puck possession department.
While Girardi has never been a strong possession player, not finishing with a CF% above 50% in eight seasons, Staal posted a CF% of 54.3% as recently as 2013-14. It’s possible the wear and tear from years of blocking shots and playing 20-plus minutes every night against the opposition’s best players has simply caught up to the 32-year-old Girardi but there is at least a chance Staal can again be a reliable defender.
It’s fair to note that Girardi battled injuries for much of the 2015-16 campaign, including a cracked knee cap which he played with through the second half of the season. He’s said to be fully healthy – perhaps for the first time in several seasons – and with a long offseason of rest and recuperation, Girardi feels he can again be a solid shutdown blue liner.
The Blue Shirts have $11.2MM tied up annually in the two defensemen and much of the reason the team avoided big money free agent deals was the lack of flexibility due to the Staal and Girardi contracts. Those deals also make it practically impossible for GM Jeff Gorton to move either player, likely meaning that barring a contract buyout, the Rangers will be forced to sink or swim with the two defenders playing big minutes. For the team to have a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup, they need much better performances from Girardi and Staal.
Key Storyline: Defense, defense and again, defense. Gorton did a tremendous job with limited resources injecting youth and speed into the lineup but was unable to upgrade the talent on defense. Henrik Lundqvist is still playing at an elite level and the offense figures again to be a top-10 unit – they finished seventh overall in goals scored in 2015-16. But if the defense continues to allow the opposition too many high quality scoring chances on a nightly basis, none of that will matter. Partially due to salary cap constraints, the Rangers were unable to land a defensive upgrade on the free agent market and in fact were forced to trade Yandle, who many felt was the team’s best defenseman last season, because they could not afford to re-sign him.
Perhaps a healthy Girardi and a rested Staal will be better in 2016-17. Maybe head coach Alain Vigneault and new assistant Jeff Beukeboom can tweak the defensive system to provide additional help to his blue liners. But without major improvements in the play on the back end, it’s likely the Rangers will again come up short in their quest for the Stanley Cup.