The Rangers finished the year 20 games above .500, despite being without their number one goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, for a couple of weeks, due to a hip problem, but Antti Raanta stepped in and helped to make us forget that Lundqvist was even hurt.
If anything, the Rangers proved that they were still a pretty good team in the regular season, the players that they brought in performed admirably and the team seemed to be working fairly well. The opening round test of the Montreal Canadiens was an even match-up on paper and one that proved to be an entertaining series, one that the Rangers were able to prevail in, taking the series in six games. Next up, however, was the Ottawa Senators and as fast paced as this series was, there was again no answer for Erik Karlsson and his boys, much like Boston before them, losing in six games.
Now, the questions about the window of opportunity are hanging overhead and the Rangers are still rather invested in a good portion of their core players. No one is too old, yet, but is the make up of this team going to work, the way it is built?
The Rangers continue to be a popular team to draw from at the hockey pool draft and it's usually for a good reason. At this year's draft last October, there were 13 Rangers selected and to no one's surprise, Lundqvist was the team's only 1st round draft pick. Remarkably, there were no Rangers taken through the 2nd and 5th rounds, but two more were taken in the 6th round and then the floodgates opened. At the first swap, the Rangers' popularity soared, as an injury was dropped and five more were picked up, while at the second swap, they came back down to the rest of the teams, with four drops and two picks. The total count, at the end of the year, was 15 Rangers on active pool teams, keeping their popularity alive.
Thanks to his hip injury, Henrik Lundqvist wasn't exactly a 1st round pick, finishing 40th overall in pool scoring, but he still was the Rangers' top player in the 2017 season, winning 31 games and finishing with 67 points in 57 appearances. That was still good enough for 14th among all goalies in the league, which is still pretty darn good and should keep him in consideration for a high pick next season.
In total, there were 13 Rangers that were considered pool worthy, in the top 200 of the forwards, top 100 defensemen and top 50 goalies, so that is a pretty impressive number. Up front, it was Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad leading the way, in order, while on the blueline, we saw Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Nick Holden and Antti Raanta was also worthy from the crease. That's a busy team and they certainly could have had one or two more, barring injuries, of course.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
The threat of missing the playoffs is real. The team that is listed above will definitely be much different before the puck drops on the season and likely even more so, by the time I write this piece at the same time next season. There will be a lot of turnover for the Rangers, which means the Rangers are in danger of hanging Lundqvist out to dry in the 2017 season and if their number one goalie can't come up with another stellar season, the overhaul will be thorough and without mercy. I can honestly see the Rangers struggle to maintain a wild card spot next season, mostly because the Atlantic Division couldn't possibly be as terrible next season, as they were in 2016 and the wild card will get drastically more difficult at a time where the Rangers are most vulnerable.
Somehow, the Rangers managed to remain fairly consistent, in terms of their roster, only flipping a few spots here and there, no better or worse than most teams we've already looked at. I think the feeling again this year is we're just waiting for the Rangers' bubble to burst. The results of this past season should indicate that they will remain, for the most part, on the status quo, as we'll review below, it doesn't look nearly as daunting of a summer, as it did last year.
2018 Pool Outlook
|Rick Nash||7.800||Ryan McDonagh||4.700||Henrik Lundqvist||8.500|
|Derek Stepan||6.500||Nick Holden||1.650||Antti Raanta||1.000|
|Chris Kreider||4.625||Brady Skjei||0.925|
|Jimmy Vesey||0.925||Marc Staal||5.700||Chris Nell||0.925|
|Pavel Buchnevich||0.925||Dan Girardi||5.500||Brandon Halverson||0.773|
|Vinni Lettieri||0.925||Kevin Klein||2.000|
|Ryan Gropp||0.808||Neal Pionk||0.925|
|Robin Kovacs||0.803||Alexei Bereglazov||0.925|
|Adam Tambellini||0.803||Sean Day||0.776|
|Adam Chapie||0.800||Vince Pedrie||0.768|
|Cristoval Nieves||0.755||John Gilmour||0.743|
|Steven Fogarty||0.750||Sergey Zborovskiy||0.734|
|Dawson Leedahl||0.749||Ryan Graves||0.633|
There is certainly no indication above, that would suggest that the Rangers won't be a popular team at the draft again next year. With the likes of Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich, who were fringe players by the end of the year, it could be just a matter of how much ice-time they need to make the jump as well. The Rangers will certainly have an impact next year and should continue to win, in theory.
Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft
Four players are all protected by their no-move clauses, including Rick Nash, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Henrik Lundqvist, but as you can see, only two of them are pool worthy. I wouldn't try to diminish the value of Staal and Girardi to the team, but that's $11.2 million in cap space unavailable to move and didn't produce.
Nevertheless, under the 7F/3D/1G protection structure, I'm thinking that guys like Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast and Nick Holden will be left to the Golden Knights, barring some behind closed doors negotiation. Fast and Holden would be good candidates to move, given their talent and their relative age in the league.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
There's only one pool worthy free agent scheduled for this summer and that's forward Mika Zibanejad, who really fit in well with the team, since being acquired from the Senators last summer. He'll be the guy that warrants the most attention from team management and he could get a nice raise from his 2017 cap hit of $2.625 million.
The 12 signed pool worthy players are coming in at $45.9 million against the salary cap for next season, leaving 11 spots and $28 million left to spend to fill in the gaps. Let's not forget Staal and Girardi, leaving nine spots and now $16.8 million in space and then it gets a little tighter. The Rangers have the better part of their roster taken care of, minus Zibanejad, so there shouldn't be many worries this off-season.
It's going to be tough for a young player to crack this Rangers lineup in the 2018 season, as they haven't been overly keen on pushing their youth into regular action too quickly, unless they have truly excelled their way to that point. The better candidates may still be Nicklas Jensen, a 2011 1st round pick of the Canucks or Cristoval Nieves, a Rangers 2nd round pick in 2012. Jensen has some NHL experience already, while Nieves has been honing his craft in the AHL lately. You may want to just stick to the veterans next season.
Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft
The Rangers still have their 1st round pick and they will select from the 21st spot in the draft in June. It's not going to be an easy spot to pick from, given that they could really use someone to bolster their talent pool outside of the big club. I think the Rangers will try and find the best player available and according to a lot of the rankings I've seen across the web and the magazines, a kid like Nick Suzuki has dropped through my mock draft a bit, thanks to his size, but his brand of hockey is a lot more about tenacity and hard work, something that would look good on Broadway.
If I were the Rangers, I would try tinkering just a little bit this summer, much like the Zibanejad/Brassard trade, just one move trying to find that extra jump that boosts them a little bit further in the playoffs... you know, to championship levels. If the Rangers opt to stay with the status quo, they will still be a pretty good team to pick from for us poolies, but I would expect much of the same as the past couple of years. I don't think the drop off will come this year, the one I was panicking about last year at this time, everyone on the roster proved that they weren't ready to quit, but no one proved they were ready to take it to another level.