The Blueshirts had pushed their chips to the middle of the table and with Henrik Lundqvist now 33 and reaching an age when he could logically be expected to decline, sacrificing draft picks and prized prospects at the expense of the team’s future was no longer of much concern.
The looming salary cap crunch meant a difficult decision lay ahead this summer between key free agents Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis, followed by another class of increasingly expensive FAs in 2016 including Yandle, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes.
But the late stages of the season and the start of the playoff run have changed things. Specifically, Lightning legends St. Louis and Boyle have quickly drifted from critical veteran cogs to afterthoughts, while the figurative torch has been passed to young emerging Blueshirts.
It was once assumed that Hagelin would be the odd man out this summer, but now it’s almost impossible to imagine the organization choosing to retain St. Louis over the Swedish speedster (although St. Louis could still re-sign for a bonus-laden veteran deal). Boyle likely plans to conclude his career when his deal expires following next season anyway, but the hole he’ll leave has already been patched with a much younger power play ace in Yandle.
The Blueshirts will still be up against the cap even subtracting these two players, but their young players are already exceeding the price tags of their rookie deals and have fortified the club’s core.
Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller were both terrific in the season’s final weeks and have continued that strong play into the postseason, while Kevin Hayes has only scratched the surface of his potential. Other young pieces like Kreider and Derek Stepan will bloom on Broadway for years to come. And there are still a couple more blue-chip prospects to come, with Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei potentially joining the fray as soon as next season. Heck, if it were possible, plugging in Buchnevich and Skjei for St. Louis and Boyle might make the Blueshirts better right now.
To go on a playoff run, a team needs solid goaltending first and foremost. It needs to stay healthy, and a good bit of luck. And it needs contributions from up and down the lineup.When the game inevitably tightens up in crunch time, the snipers and playmaking artists are often mitigated in favor of greasy goals with traffic in front of the net. They tend to come from unlikely sources – cement-handed Brian Boyle was among New York’s most dependable postseason scorers in recent years.
So who are the candidates to become overnight heroes this spring? Ignoring the top offensive guys – and that now most certainly includes J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes – here are the cases for the grinders:
James Sheppard – GM Glen Sather made a point of noting Sheppard’s performance in last year’s playoffs when he scored six points in seven games against the eventual champion Kings. Sheppard has a nose for the net, which works to his advantage this time of year. The biggest thing working against Becky’s latest crush is his spot on the depth chart – there’s no guarantee he’ll even dress for many games.
Rick Nash – just kidding (kind of).
The Presidents’ Trophy is a nice feather in Alain Vigneault’s cap and deserved recognition for the remarkable regular season the Rangers are about to complete. But is it really worth anything?
All the trophy does is extend the home-ice advantage earned by winning the conference for one more round, and of course that only matters if the team actually reaches the Stanley Cup Final.
The power of home-ice advantage in the postseason has dwindled in recent years. Its value is considered to be greatest in pivotal Game Sevens, but since the 2004-2005 lockout the road team is actually 21-19 in those deciding games.
Miller finally found a home when he was deployed alongside Hayes and Carl Hagelin on a third line that developed instant chemistry. And when the Blueshirts traded Lee Stempniak and Anthony Duclair, Miller’s position was virtually guaranteed for the rest of the season. That regular spot in the lineup seems to have been the confidence boost Miller needed to settle in as an NHL regular and take his game to the next level.
Since then, he’s gotten better and better. In March Miller trailed just Hayes, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider in P/60 and ranked seventh on the team in SCF% (by War-on-Ice’s definition). Miller earned a promotion to the second line in the wake of Marty St. Louis’ injury and has fit right in.
Last week I covered the four Atlantic Division teams the Rangers could face in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so this week let’s take a look at the three Metro Division rivals that New York could meet in Round One.
New York – The upstart Islanders seized control of the Metro early in the season and paced the division for the majority of the year, but the club has struggled of late. The Isles are having their best season in ages, which will give the franchise huge momentum going into Brooklyn next year. Of course, winning a playoff round or two would only help. Though they added playoff veterans Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Jaroslav Halak before the season, the Islanders are still very short on postseason experience. However, they are incredibly deep, especially up front where they possess the NHL’s fourth-ranked offense. This is one of the few teams that can nearly match the Rangers’ depth and mitigate their speed. The Islanders have ranked near the top of the league in CF% and FF% all year, but they have been trending down over the last couple months (ranking just behind the Blueshirts). Winger Kyle Okposo returned to the lineup two weeks ago, and though he’s struggled to find his game, Okposo could be a huge difference maker down the stretch. And of course it’d be remiss not to mention potential Art Ross/Hart Trophy winner John Tavares, who has been simply magnificent. Read More→
With a five-point lead and four games in hand on the second-place Islanders as well as a seven-point lead and two games in hand on the banged up Penguins, it’s looking more and more likely that the Rangers will win the Metro Division. If the Blueshirts do manage to hang on to their lead, they could face one of four Atlantic Division teams: Detroit, Boston, Ottawa or Florida. The Bruins currently hold wild card position, trailing the third-place Red Wings by four points and leading the Senators by the same number. However, with a dozen games to go and Boston streaking, it’s still possible the Bruins will overtake the Wings – just as it’s possible The Hamburglar, Andrew Hammond, will steer the rallying Sens into the postseason.
So with the Blueshirts comfortably in playoff position, let’s (gasp) take a look ahead at these potential first-round foes. Read More→
By any measure, Cam Talbot’s temporary reign as New York’s No. 1 goaltender has been a resounding success.
The Prince has been an adventure at times, mishandling the puck and giving up the occasional softie. But overall, it’s impossible to complain about Talbot’s sparking 11-2-3 record, 2.35 GAA and .920 SV% since taking over for Henrik Lundqvist (not including yesterday’s game). In fact, as MSG noted on Sunday night, Talbot’s numbers over the last two seasons stack up against any goalie in the league.
The Blueshirts are still counting down the days until Lundqvist’s return, but in the meantime Talbot has quashed any concerns about needing to bring in outside veteran help.
Talbot skeptics will wonder if the Rangers are playing so much better in front of Talbot as a team that they’re masking any of his deficiencies, and it’s a question I’ve asked myself. Indeed over the last few years, it has seemed like the Blueshirts tighten up defensively in front of their backup netminders and feel a little freer to take chances knowing the ultimate safety valve was sitting on his throne in the crease.
Once again it seemed like Rangers GM Glen Sather had little to no maneuverability under the salary cap, and once again Slats found a way to wriggle his payroll under the cap ceiling.
By exploiting a to this point little-used clause in the new collective bargaining agreement, Sather got Arizona to eat half of Yandle’s contract. Of course Sather had to sweeten his offers to persuade the Coyotes to offer financial aid, but Sather still shrewdly found a way to take on salary and improve his club when it seemed to be nearly impossible.
The Coyotes will absorb half of Yandle’s cap hit again next year, but the $2.625 million the Rangers have added to their payroll is still going to be difficult to work around given that the guys Yandle is replacing, John Moore and Matt Hunwick, counted just $851k and $600k, respectively, against the cap this season. Read More→
Much has been made of the Rangers’ salary cap woes with the likes of Mats Zuccarello, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin set to be free agents and the ceiling unlikely to increase much in the offseason. However, the emergence of several top prospects has made biting the bullet of letting a key player or two go much easier.
Obviously every franchise wants to retain as much talent as possible, but of course there is only so much money and so many positions to go around. The good news is that the team is well prepared to weather a significant loss.
Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich are potential replacements for Zuccarello, St. Louis and Hagelin; Brady Skjei will take the Matt Hunwick/John Moore job; and now it looks like even Oscar Lindberg could be useful should the team need to deal Dominic Moore in a penny-saving move.
What a time it is to be Glen Sather these days. One of his favorite times of the year is quickly approaching, but Sather’s carefully crafted trade deadline plan has been continuously influenced by new developments over the last few weeks.
First Henrik Lundqvist went down with a scary vascular injury, ceding his throne to backup Cam Talbot. The Prince had played well in spot duty over the last two seasons, but it was still anyone’s guess how he would respond to immediate full-time duty. Though it’s been rocky at times, Talbot has seized the job with a 5-1-1 record since taking over as the starter.
The team’s chief perceived position of need was at third-line center, but Kevin Hayes has been white-hot of late and it almost seems like it would be a shame to give away his gig in the middle to a mercenary when Hayes himself could continue raising his level. Read More→