By Sean Hartnett
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There was a feeling of change in the air at MSG Training Center as the Rangers and head coach Alain Vigneault addressed the media on Thursday before the team escaped into the 2017 offseason.
Following consecutive years of premature playoff exits, the Rangers will reemerge for training camp in September with a number of new faces and, perhaps, a revamped core. The mainstays were a main topic of discussion during Vigneault’s break-up day press conference.
“I do think it’s something that we’re going to look at,” Vigneault said when asked about the possibility of real change to personnel. “We’re going to get together in about 10 days for a week and we’re going to go through everything — from what we have here, to what we have in Hartford, to what we have coming up, to our individual roles. I’m going to look at my staff, etc., and evaluate the whole hockey personnel that I’m in charge of and see if there’s some areas that we can do better.”
Based on Vigneault’s words it sounds as if all options to bolster the roster will be assessed by the 55-year-old head coach, general manager Jeff Gorton, the scouting staff and key front office personnel. The core group of skaters includes forwards Rick Nash (who is 32), Mats Zuccarello (29), Derek Stepan (26), and defensemen Dan Girardi (33), Marc Staal (30) and Ryan McDonagh (27). McDonagh will turn 28 on June 13, Nash will turn 33 on June 16 and Stepan will celebrate his 27th birthday two days later. Zuccarello will be 30 when training camp opens.
“We have been together for a handful of years and have come close, but this is a results-oriented business,” McDonagh said. “You’ve got to get results and you want to get that ultimate prize. You know the team is gonna do whatever it can to put a team on the ice that they think can win.”
Now is the time for careful evaluating and judicious planning. Though some fans have grown frustrated, particularly with Vigneault’s in-game deployments, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s led two franchises to Stanley Cup Final appearances and ranks third on the Rangers’ all-time wins list in both the regular season and playoffs.
Keep in mind, Gorton oversaw a slew of moves as interim GM of the Bruins that paved the way to Boston capturing the Stanley Cup in 2011. In the summer of 2006, he landed a franchise goaltender in Tuukka Rask from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He selected Brad Marchand, Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic in the same draft and signed Zdeno Chara to lead the charge as a cornerstone defenseman.
If Gorton’s most notable move since succeeding Glen Sather in the summer of 2015 was trading Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad last July, the decisions made in this upcoming offseason could define his legacy. It all starts with how the Rangers plan to address their underperforming blue line.
Girardi and Staal have faithfully served as minute-eating shutdown guys, but a shift toward speed and youth is required. The veteran duo’s performances have been on a downward trend in recent seasons and their combined salaries accounted for 15 percent of the $73 million salary cap during the 2016-17 season.
“Obviously, I think that we can get the job done with the guys we have,” Girardi said. “That’s really not my decision to make. I think as a group in here, we’re very confident. But we haven’t got to the ultimate goal yet, but I think we have the right guys in here.”
Girardi has three seasons remaining on his $5.5 million AAV contract, while Staal has four seasons left at a $5.7 million cap hit. If the Rangers were to buy out Girardi, a portion of his ap charge would be spread across the next six seasons. If Staal were to be bought out, the resulting cap charge would be spread across the next eight seasons. Staal did not meet with the press on Thursday.
A buyout would help position the Rangers to make a run at top free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The New Rochelle native has continually been one of the league’s elite offense-driving blue liners and he recorded a career-best 56 points in split duty with the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals this season.
Shattenkirk’s 27 power play points tied for eighth overall during the regular season. His proficiency in man-advantage situations would be an ideal remedy to a Rangers power play that sunk to 7.7 percent in the playoffs. The worthiness of pursuing an expensive, long-term deal with Shattenkirk is just one of many options the Rangers could explore.
An interesting nugget from Vigneault’s press conference was the admission that he’s looking for defensive help from AHL Hartford.
“We’re definitely looking at bringing in another young defenseman next year,” Vigneault said.
Topping the list of youngsters looking to push for an NHL roster place in the preseason will be 21-year-old left-handed defenseman Ryan Graves, who recorded 30 points in 76 AHL games.
Brendan Smith, 28, was acquired at the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings for a 2017 third-round pick and a second-round selection in 2018. Smith was paid a $2.75 million cap hit over the two-year deal he signed with Detroit in the summer of 2015 and is a pending unrestricted free agent. The versatile left-hander is due for a big raise.
“From here, I don’t even know the process and how everything works,” Smith said. “I’m going to do some meetings with the coaches and talk and see how things go. I get the litter to pick, but I don’t know if I do. To be honest, I’m not sure how it’s going to go. As of right now, I’m a Ranger. I really enjoyed being here. I liked the guys, the group. Obviously, I have some of my best buddies over here to begin with and they’re leaders on the team.”
It will be interesting to see how many of six regular defensemen in McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Nick Holden, Brady Skjei and Smith, plus Kevin Klein and Adam Clendening, return next season. Steven Kampfer, 28, signed a two-year extension in mid-April.
Of course, all of the Rangers’ offseason decisions will be complicated by the June 18-20 expansion draft. This will be a defining summer and it will be crucial for the Blueshirts’ brass to make the right calls.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey