By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers enter the offseason in an unfamiliar situation. Last summer, the plan was to keep hold of a core that had continually earned the organization’s trust by launching deep playoff runs and coming within touching distance of the Stanley Cup.
A deflating first-round exit to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins has paved the way for a total roster re-evaluation. General manager Jeff Gorton did not meet with the media during Tuesday’s break-up day to discuss his vision for the future. That said, he and head coach Alain Vigneault will take up to a 10-day break before beginning detailed discussions about how the Rangers will move forward.
“I think we’re at the stage now where we need to look at some changes,” Vigneault said. “For any NHL team, status quo is not possible and it’s not what’s needed. We want to bring in different players to add to the dynamic. The core guys have been together for a while. Certainly, it’s time now to look at what we can do to improve and that’s what we’re going to do moving forward.”
The biggest issue troubling the Rangers throughout the regular season and the playoffs was their inability to move the puck efficiently out of their own end. Breakout plays lacked cohesion and quickness. When the Rangers are at their best, they’re executing cleanly and establishing possession.
“I think we look at everything,” Vigneault said. “There’s no denying inconsistency this year was a big part of our season, especially from our back end this year. The puck moving ability we’ve shown in the past, for whatever reason, was not as good. It affected a lot of our games.”
Breakdowns were frequent and the Rangers went from being a team that harassed the opposition with electrifying speed to one that was constantly chasing in its own end.
When it comes to performing Vigneault’s uptempo system, no defenseman does a better job executing outlet passes and skating the puck up ice efficiently than pending unrestricted free agent Keith Yandle. The 29-year-old led the Blueshirts with 42 assists and became the first Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch in 2001-02 to record 40. Following the All-Star break, Yandle led the NHL with 13 power play assists and 14 power play points.
Yet, the Rangers do not see retaining him as a straightforward decision. They are pressed hard against the salary cap and are aware of the downside that comes with committing long-term pacts to defensemen nearing their 30s.
“I think Yans had a good season,” Vigneault said. “I understand what he can bring. He’s a highly-skilled player that takes risks sometimes. You’ve got to live with the risks. Defensively, I thought he was good. He was better than what he had played, I thought, in the past in Phoenix. Really well-respected by his teammates, a real good guy to have in the room. So, he’s definitely a tough decision here moving forward.”
It’s difficult to see how the Rangers would replace his ability to generate offensive chances and his power play production. Should Yandle hit unrestricted free agency, he will likely command offers near $6 million in average annual value and a five-year term or greater.
“To be a UFA doesn’t come around too often, so you’ve got to be smart with it,” Yandle said. “The organization here is amazing for what they did for me, trading for me. It’s been nothing but amazing and the way they treat their players. I could definitely see myself playing here.”
One of the bigger questions facing the Rangers is the future of alternate captain Dan Girardi. The 31-year-old is signed through the 2019-20 season at a cap charge of $5.5 million. Next season is the final year of his full no-movement clause before it becomes a limited no-trade clause for the remainder of the deal.
Girardi bravely played through a cracked right knee cap for much of the season and suffered a late-season concussion, causing him to miss the final two regular season games. It’s unclear how much of the deterioration in his game is due to injury, age or a combination of both.
It will be hard to imagine many teams being interested in taking on Girardi’s long-term deal even if he waives his no-movement clause, and the Rangers are willing to swallow a portion of his cap hit. A buyout would result in savings of $3.75 million next season, $2.75 million the following year and $1.75 million for each of the final two years of the contract.
Girardi is staunch in his belief that he can rebound after a difficult, injury-plagued campaign.
“One hundred percent I can be,” he said. “That’s why they signed me to a long-term deal. Obviously, this year wasn’t the best for me and the whole team, but I think I can be the player I was in the past. I’m using this summer to be ready and this is the turning point for me, I think.”
When asked whether the Rangers are still committed to him, he wasn’t able to give a clear answer.
“Well, I think so,” Girardi said. “Not much has been discussed. They have to do their thing. I’m ready to be my best next year. That’s not my decision to make. I’m not the coach or the GM or the president. That’s not my division. I’m just a player and I’ve got to be ready to be myself.”
Coming to decisions on the futures of Yandle and Girardi are big calls Gorton has to make and it will have a major effect on the Rangers’ fortunes going forward. In the case of Yandle, it’s clear that he’s an extremely important contributor to the Blueshirts’ success. Gorton must exhaust every option to keep him in New York.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey