Salvaging the Season May Cost the Rangers

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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After a horrendous start to the season, the New York Rangers found themselves at an early crossroads. Many, including myself, called for the team to read the writing on the wall and begin concentrating not on the current season, but the future. That start was followed by a bipolar-esque turnaround, which saw the team rattle off a six-game winning streak. That streak was followed by two road losses and then another four straight wins before a loss in their most recent game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

That loss to the Florida Panthers mirrored the team’s season thus far. Behind by three goals in the first period, the Blueshirts managed to march all the way back to a four-four tie. Though the comeback would fall short late in the game as first a Brendan Smith and then a Nick Holden turnover would gift the Panthers the go-ahead-goal.

Being able to come from behind, whether it is in a game or in a season is a trait found in winning teams. However, requiring come-from-behind victories should be the exception, not the rule. It is a razor edge margin where too often success proves elusive. Coming back from deep deficits is entertaining, as is the invulnerable feeling when a team, once in the gutter, marches all the way back to the playoff picture. It is not a strategy for success though.

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In the interim, the Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault has had to make deal after deal with the Devil. Unable to risk any single game because of the hole that was dug, 35-year old Henrik Lundqvist has played far too often. Smith, who struggled mightily to start the season, was shelved over the six-game winning streak despite the long-term benefit getting him back in the lineup and playing might have had for his future with the team. Young players like Pavel Buchnevich, despite showing maturity, has all too often found himself the victim of Vigneault’s fears of losing. His ice time continues to sit near the bottom of all regular forwards.

Most alarmingly, the Rangers for the first time in recent memory, have no impact rookies in the lineup. Sure, Boo Nieves, now 23-years-old, is technically a rookie, but he is also one of the few examples where Vigneault is playing an inexperienced player on the fourth line where his role should naturally be. It is likely that the dire situation the team found themselves in forced Vigneault to keep more impactful rookies, who sometimes can prove costly in terms of wins, out of the lineup. While the team should never rush prospects into the NHL, it is also vital for successful franchises to continually add young cost controlled players into their mix in order to navigate the Salary Cap.

This is especially true for a team with dead cap space from bought out player Dan Girardi that is also facing new contracts next year for a number of valuable Restricted Free Agents (RFA). J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei will all need to be re-signed. Having a couple second-year players next season ready to take on increased roles might help mitigate the potential losses of Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, most likely to become cap casualties in order to retain the teams RFAs. In recent years, we’ve seen the Rangers have impact rookies make the next steps necessary to allow the team to part with players they could no longer afford or not have to go to a more expensive route in the UFA market. Players like Skjei, Buchnevich and Vesey are vital to the team, yet the next generation of these types of players are all in currently in Hartford or overseas.

While this team, as constructed, can certainly finish inside the playoff bubble, if they do it will be at the expense of the future. That is a fine path when a team has a considerable shot at a deep run and possible championship, however, this does not appear to be that team. Instead, fighting to salvage this season could hamstring their future. They may become buyers at the deadline instead of sellers, meaning sending away prospects and picks rather than acquiring more. Their own picks, should they manage to retain them, will be at worse draft spots had they accepted the reality of their position and made the proper personnel decisions earlier in the season.

The worst case scenario is a team flirting on the playoff bubble come the trade deadline, making moves to try to shore up a playoff berth that doesn’t come and without any rookies in the lineup gaining valuable experience. The start to their season cemented the idea that this was a team that should go all-in on their ‘retool on the fly’. One season of pain could have righted the franchise’s prospect pool and set them towards a number of years of contention. Instead, they are a listless ship with an identity of falling behind and sometimes, pulling themselves out of the ditch they keep finding themselves in.

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