By Steve Silverman
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It’s shaping up like the New York Rangers won’t be one of the major players in this weekend’s NHL Draft.
The Blueshirts aren’t scheduled to pick until late in the second round — the 59th pick overall — Friday night and it’s hard to get a game-changing player when you don’t pick early — especially this year, in a draft many experts say is the weakest in some time.
They traded their first-round pick, along with Ryan Callahan, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the deal that brought Marty St. Louis to New York. Because Callahan signed the Rangers received an additional second-rounder in 2015.
The start of the NHL draft represents more than just the influx of young talent into the professional ranks. It marks the real start of the 2014-15 season, when teams can take major steps to improve themselves.
The draft is just one part of the process, and with this year’s selection meeting in Philadelphia will come a potential slew of trades that will help teams form a new identity. A few days after the draft, free agency will commence. There will be a feeding frenzy in July of players who are looking for the deal of a lifetime – or at least a job for next season.
It may not look like it when you don’t see their name in the first round of the draft, but this is a vital offseason for the Rangers.
They have a chance to seize control in the Eastern Conference and become its best and most consistent team.
Some casual fans may say they are already there since they beat the Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals and gave a solid account of themselves before they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final in five games (with three of the losses in overtime).
The Rangers were not the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, but they got hot at the right time and they came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. They finished 13 points behind the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division.
Taken a step further, they finished 21 points behind the Boston Bruins, who had the best regular-season record in the league and probably would have been the Rangers’ opponents in the conference finals had they not been psyched out by P.K. Subban and the Canadiens in the second round.
The Rangers have a chance to bypass Montreal, Pittsburgh and Boston and become the lead dog in the East during this offseason.
The Rangers proved themselves to be sharper and hungrier than both the Penguins and Canadiens during the playoffs. Montreal has depth issues on defense and is inconsistent when it comes to scoring. Carey Price is nearly as good as Henrik Lundqvist, but hasn’t yet reached his level.
Pittsburgh is a team in transition with new management and a brand new coaching staff. Despite having more offensive talent than any other Eastern team, Dan Bylsma failed to make the necessary adjustments during recent postseason failures. The Penguins hired former Carolina boss Jim Rutherford to serve as general manager and he just hired Mike Johnston to serve as head coach. While Johnston has been an NHL assistant and associate coach, he has never had his own team before. He comes from the minor league Portland Winterhawks.
That means there is going to be an adjustment period and mistakes will be made. But let’s give the Rutherford-Johnston combination the benefit of the doubt and say they make the right moves next year. The Penguins still have Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, and that’s a major problem. He has proven himself undependable in big games.
Boston is a big, powerful and ferocious teams, and likely to stay that way for as long as Zdeno Chara remains the anchor of the defense. However, if Jarome Iginla leaves during free agency, the Bruins’ offensive balance will take a big blow. The Bruins have a solid defense, but most of their blueliners are not the elusive, puck moving type. They were exposed for being a bit ponderous on defense in their playoff loss to the Canadiens.
The Rangers have most of the pieces in place. General manager Glen Sather knows that. He needs to re-sign Benoit Pouliot and perhaps Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore.
Additionally, the Rangers have more than $23 million in cap space, according to Capgeek.com. They are in a much better position than Montreal, Pittsburgh or Boston when it comes to financial maneuverability.
The Rangers have the room to sign a big-name free agent and perhaps add a solid role player as well.
Sather can give head coach Alain Vigneault even more weapons if he is focused, determined and willing to spend.
If he does just that, the Rangers will likely be the lead dog in the East when the 2014-15 season gets underway next fall.
It can’t come soon enough for Rangers fans.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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