By Sean Hartnett
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You don’t tear down a team that was 20 minutes away from making a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance. The Rangers came within a whisker of making a repeat Final trip — and that’s pretty darn impressive considering that key winger Mats Zuccarello was unavailable for the entire Eastern Conference Final and all-situation captain Ryan McDonagh hobbled on a broken foot through multiple series games.
Already, there have been calls for the Rangers to dramatically shake up their roster and demands for a culture change. Why? The formula isn’t broken.
Alain Vigneault isn’t going to suddenly abandon the fast-skating, high-skill system that won the Presidents’ Trophy in a franchise record 113-point, 53-win season. The idea that the Rangers’ roster needs to be infused with a bunch of aggressive, hard-hitting enforcers is a ridiculous notion.
If an enforcer is so important, why doesn’t either of this year’s Stanley Cup Finalists — the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks — dress one in their lineup? Both of these teams are oozing with skill.
Better yet, how did the San Jose Sharks perform after spending last summer remodeling their roster by making no attempt to re-sign point-getting defenseman Dan Boyle? They refused to add skill, instead signing lumbering 6-foot-8 winger John Scott as part of their “culture change.” The Sharks suffered a 22-point decline, missing the playoffs.
How about the Big, Bad Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, aka the Broad Street Bullies? Neither made the playoffs. Simply put, the specialized enforcer is going the way of the dinosaur — and any team that believes in the importance of one is stuck in the Stone Age.
If you can’t skate, you don’t have any chance of being part of Vigneault’s plans. He craves mobile, puck-moving defensemen that thrive in the transition game. All of his forwards can skate. His system is all about five-man units playing at a high pace, cycling and controlling offensive zone time.
A very deserving Lightning team out-executed and out-defended the Rangers to capture the Prince of Wales Trophy. The Rangers have the core in place to remain one of the East’s superpowers for years to come, but changes are coming and sacrifices will have to be made.
Breakup Day is scheduled for noon Monday, and a few players will be walking out the door and leaving the organization for good.
ST. LOUIS LIKELY A GONER, BUT DON’T EXPECT BIG CHANGES
The salary cap is expected to rise from $69 million to $71 million. Currently, the Rangers have roughly $60.5 million committed to 15 players.
Cap casualties begin with 39-year-old winger Martin St. Louis. Even if St. Louis is willing to take a sizable discount, the Rangers need all the cap space possible. Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast are all due raises as unrestricted free agents. Along with St. Louis, versatile forward James Sheppard and reliable defenseman Matt Hunwick are unrestricted free agents.
At 22, Miller has proven he’s capable of being trusted with a top-six role. That doesn’t help St. Louis’ chances of remaining with the Blueshirts. Stepan is going to ask for more than the $5 million annual-average value contract handed to fellow center Derick Brassard last summer. Expect Fast and Miller to sign modest two-year “bridge” deals. Hagelin will command a nice bump above the $2.25 million he earned this past season. Forward Oscar Lindberg, 23, made his NHL debut last season and will be in the mix to compete for a spot during training camp. Dazzling prospect Pavel Buchnevich has the ability to play in the NHL right now, but signed a one-year deal to remain with Severstal Cherepovets of the KHL.
Defenseman Kevin Klein is earning an AAV of $2.9 million through the 2018-19 season. His cap-friendly contract would be desirable for a number of teams seeking a second-pair, right-handed defenseman via trade. Re-signing Hunwick on the cheap is a possibility. If Klein or another defenseman is dealt away, 21-year-old former first-round pick Brady Skjei could get the chance to compete for a third-pair spot in training camp. Another former first-rounder, Dylan McIlrath is a possible candidate to make the jump, although he lacks the footspeed to be an ideal fit for AV’s system.
The Rangers will likely dangle backup goaltender Cam Talbot as the June 26-27 NHL Draft in Sunrise, Florida nears. A goaltending-starved team could make an offer enticing enough for the Blueshirts to deal Talbot at the draft. The Rangers need to recoup picks after dealing many away at recent trade deadlines. If the Rangers are to deal away Talbot, they will need to identify a quality free-agent backup goalie.
Look out for a more in-depth offseason breakdown in the near future.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.