By Sean Hartnett
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After letting a trip to the Eastern Conference finals slip away, the Rangers are in re-evaluation mode. Four consecutive seasons of 45-plus victories and three straight seasons above the 100-point mark aren’t all that meaningful if it’s not backed by continual playoff success.
Their 2014 trip to the Stanley Cup Final feels like ages ago. Only franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Rick Nash, Kevin Klein, Marc Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider remain from the group that was defeated by the Los Angeles Kings in five games. J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast appeared in a handful of games that postseason, but did not skate in the Final.
Take away Klein, a depth defenseman who only appeared in one 2017 postseason game, from that group and you essentially have a core of eight, led by Lundqvist, McDonagh, Zuccarello, Nash, Stepan, and Kreider.
The Rangers haven’t been up to snuff since they lost in the 2015 conference finals in seven games to Tampa Bay. Now that the Blueshirts have exited early in each of the last two postseasons, a long, hard evaluation of the core is required.
“I do think it’s something that we’re going to look at,” head coach Alain Vigneault said at last Thursday’s break up day. “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.”
Until he hangs up his pads and calls it a day, Lundqvist will be the bedrock on which hopes of a return to the Stanley Cup Final are built. Every transaction made by general manager Jeff Gorton from here on will ultimately be scrutinized through the prism of whether it results in “King Henrik” gaining an elusive championship crown.
Lundqvist will turn 36 next March. Once he retires, the Rangers will have a Derek Jeter-like hole to fill in terms of losing a Hall of Fame talent and an obsessively driven leader who sets the locker room tone.
Of course, Lundqvist isn’t going anywhere and it would be earth-shattering if McDonagh, Zuccarello or emerging blue liner Brady Skjei aren’t back next season. Skjei, Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey, Pavel Buchnevich and minor-league defenseman Ryan Graves are key to the youth movement.
The Rangers are going to need Kreider (26 years old), Miller (24) and Kevin Hayes (25) to continue to take forward strides, even though their production dried up this postseason. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that one of the trio is packaged in an offseason trade, but Vigneault sees their development as a major positive.
“The evolution for me of Kreider, Hayesy, J.T. Miller — there were a lot of things that can be pointed out that we are making strides in the right direction,” Vigneault said. “It does not at all eliminate the fact of the disappointment of this loss. But when we are going to sit down in about 10 days and evaluate our season and moving forward, there are some positives to take out of this year.”
Among the previously mentioned core forwards, Kreider would be an interesting trade chip to dangle, but unless an unrefusable offer comes their way, the Rangers would be best served harnessing the powerful, 6-foot-3 winger’s high-ceiling potential. On the other side of the coin, Nash’s return is limited by his age (he’ll be 33 on June 16), injury history, modified no-trade clause, lack of term beyond next season and two consecutive seasons of production below 40 points.
The Rangers seem to be at a crossroads point with alternate captain Derek Stepan. Though his six points in 12 postseason games was a decent return, his typically responsible three-zone play faded. His game suddenly lacked consistency and efficiency. The 26-year-old center’s shooting percentage dipped to 6.1 in the playoffs.
“Individually, I’m disappointed and ashamed and flat-out embarrassed,” Stepan said after the Rangers’ Game 6 elimination against Ottawa. “It kills me I was not able to find my game. It is what it is, just have to live with it.”
Stepan will turn 27 on June 18. Next season will be the first year of two seasons of full no-trade protection, followed by a 15-team, limited no-trade clause over the final two years of the deal. The Minnesota native has long served as a leader in the dressing room, on the bench and on the ice.
A 50-point season from Stepan is money in the bank, but the worthiness of devoting $6.5 million in cap space to him has come into question.
“We’ve been here a long time, the core of us,” Stepan said on break-up day. “We understand that this world is about winning. As a group, we haven’t been able to do it. We’ve been real good, real close, but that doesn’t do us any good. It’s our lives and it’s part of the business, part of the job. Again, all these things are out of our control.”
Last summer, the Rangers desired to get younger and faster, so they swapped Derick Brassard for Zibanejad. In their quest to gain fresh blood at center or on the back end, Stepan’s qualities would be attractive to general managers around the league. They know of Stepan’s track record of savvy play on both ends of the ice, his playmaking skill and the ideal example he sets for youngsters to follow.
Whether or not to move Stepan is a tough call and it’s one of many tough calls Gorton will have to make in what will be a summer of intrigue for the Rangers.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey