By Sean Hartnett
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Six months ago, the Rangers captured national attention. They summoned a rallying spirit and reached their first Stanley Cup Final since the 1994 team ended an infamous 54-year championship drought. The Big Apple’s craving for hockey had reached a fever pitch.
After decades of mediocrity, the Rangers had finally produced a winner. The names Lundqvist, St. Louis and McDonagh belonged in the same breath as Richter, Messier and Leetch. Even though their Stanley Cup dream was derailed by the dominant Los Angeles Kings, the future appeared bright for the Blueshirts.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The 2014-15 Rangers are playing ordinary hockey. At 11-9-4, the Blueshirts currently rank third in the Metropolitan Division. They have scored 71 goals and conceded 70.
The Rangers have become the NHL’s Jekyll and Hyde team, subjecting fans to baffling levels of inconsistency. Their longest winning streak of the season is three games, and that was accomplished in October.
Aside from the dependable Kevin Klein, the Rangers’ blueliners haven’t played up to snuff. Their defensemen suffer constant breakdowns and allow opposing forwards to drift unmanned into high-scoring areas. They aren’t outmuscling forwards from the crease. Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are expected to play like top-four defensemen. They haven’t. Injuries and illness have robbed high-priced free agent Dan Boyle from making a considerable impact. The 38-year-old power-play ace has only suited up for eight games.
In the case of Staal, the Rangers have some thinking to do. Staal has crucially served as a shutdown defenseman in recent playoff campaigns. The 27-year-old defenseman has a habit of raising his game under the playoff spotlight. Staal frustrated the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin during the 2014 Eastern Conference Semifinals, but that was with Anton Stralman on his right side.
Now in Tampa, Stralman has formed one of the league’s strongest defensive pairings with fellow Swede Victor Hedman. Stralman’s plus-17 is tied for second-highest in the league, only trailing sensational Nashville Predators rookie Filip Forsberg. Hedman leads all NHL defensemen with 1.43 points per game.
As evidenced in Monday’s 6-3 victory and over the course of a three-game season sweep, the Lightning boast greater depth than the Rangers and are better equipped to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Staal is a pending 2015 unrestricted free agent. The Rangers would be delighted to lock down Staal at the same $5.5 million average-annual value rate that they signed Girardi to last spring. Staal and agent Paul Krepelka are likely to push for a six-year extension at nearly $6 million per year. It’s hard to tell whether Staal will go the route of Girardi and commit his long-term future to the Rangers, or if fruitless negotiations will force the Rangers to explore trade options as the March 2 trade deadline nears.
Rick Nash and Derek Stepan are playing above a point-per-game pace. Martin St. Louis and Derick Brassard have each collected 20 points through 24 games. But two key forwards — Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider — need to step things up.
Zuccarello, a surprise producer last season, has gone from goal machine to penalty machine. Zuccarello is on pace to commit 69 penalty minutes after committing 32 PIM last season. Lately, Zuccarello’s offensive production has dried up. The 27-year-old Norwegian has collected just two points in the past eight games and has not scored a power-play goal this season.
It’s very possible that Zuccarello will not be a Ranger next season. Zuccarello agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal this summer after failing to agree to a long-term extension. He is a pending 2015 unrestricted free agent and is unable to sign a new extension until January 1, per the terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
Speaking of penalty machines, Kreider has already committed 48 penalty minutes, the eighth-highest among all NHL skaters. He is on pace to collect a whopping total of 169 PIM. Additionally, Kreider’s goalless drought has reached 10 games.
The subpar play of elite goaltender Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t helped things, either. Lundqvist has gotten off to a rocky start this season, posting a 9-7-3 record, 2.70 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
Staal, St. Louis, Zuccarello, backup goalie Cam Talbot and depth players Lee Stempniak and Matt Hunwick are all pending unrestricted free agents. Of the bunch, only St. Louis and Talbot are likely to return next season. Stepan, Carl Hagelin, John Moore, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast are pending restricted free agents. Both Stepan and Hagelin are in for significant raises above their current respective salaries of $3.075 million and $2.25 million.
The Rangers’ efforts to re-sign upcoming free agents will be hampered by the albatross contract of ineffective winger Tanner Glass. Following two underwhelming seasons in Pittsburgh and a history of poor puck-possession numbers, the Rangers inexplicably signed Glass to a three-year contract with an average annual value of $1.45 million. His contract puts a strain on the Rangers’ salary-cap situation, both presently and in the future.
Are the Rangers a playoff-caliber team? Certainly. Are they Stanley Cup contenders? It sure isn’t looking that way.
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