You can say what you want about John Tortorella, the Rangers bombastic coach, but he knows his team well. When analyzing his club’s disappointing defeat in five games to the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Tortorella explained:
“I don’t think our team is fully built yet…We’re not there yet as far as talent. There are areas of our team that need to get better, so we continue to build.”
Player for player, the Rangers are not as talented as the Washington Capitals. That’s the main reason the Caps finished as the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference with 107 points and the Rangers were 14 points behind them and barely squeaked into the playoffs. That being said, as former NHL coach and GM Marshall Johnston once reminded me, the more talented team does not always win.
So here are the reasons the Rangers are heading for the golf course and the Capitals are moving on:
1) The Rangers were just 1-for-20 on the power play in the series. When you are the less talented team, you need to take full advantage of your opportunities. The Rangers were in every game of this series as no contest was decided by more than two goals. It is no coincidence that the Rangers only power play goal came in their only win. In their four losses, the Blueshirts were 0-for-15 with the extra man. Change that to 3-for-15 or 4-for-15 and we have a very different series.
2) The Rangers couldn’t hold late leads. During the regular season, New York was 29-0-0 when they led after two periods. In game 1 of the series, the Rangers held a 1-0 lead with less than seven minutes left in the third period before losing 2-1 in overtime. In Game 4, the Rangers led 3-0 entering the third period and again, fell in overtime. Even in the game they won, the Rangers held a 2-1 third period lead which they temporarily relinquished. Sometimes when you score is almost as important as how many and the Caps came through late in tight games.
3) The Rangers best scorer did not raise his game: While the Caps have Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin, the closest the Rangers have to a top tier offensive threat is Marian Gaborik. The former 40 goal scorer had a poor season and did not regain his scoring touch in the playoffs. He scored one goal and added one assist in five games while making a costly defensive mistake in double OT that led to Washington’s winning goal in Game 4.
4) A lack of scoring depth: With Ryan Callahan out of the lineup, the Rangers needed their secondary scorers to raise their offensive output. However, players like Derek Stepan (0 pts and a minus-5), Erik Christensen (1 point), Artem Anisimov (1 point) and Vinny Prospal (1 point) just didn’t produce consistently. The Rangers need to be a grinding team to score goals and win hockey games, but the Caps defense consistently prevented the Rangers from getting quality scoring chances and limited the number of rebounds the Rangers had. In the end, the Rangers scored eight goals in five games which is simply not enough to win a series.
The Rangers definitely need to add some scoring this off-season, but the club should continue to build the team primarily through the draft, the way they have been recently. The team’s most productive and talented players this year have been home grown like Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist, Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Younger players like Anisimov, Stepan and Christensen are also clearly part of the future and the Rangers have some quality prospects like Chris Keider who have not yet reached the NHL level. Adding a piece or two via free agency may be fine, but the days when this franchise built itself around expensive free agent retreads should remain in the past.
Decisions have to be made this summer with players like Prospal, Ruslan Fedotenko, Bryan McCabe and Alexander Frolov who are each set to be unrestricted free agents while Dubinsky, Callahan, Matt Gilroy and Anisimov are restricted free agents and will need new contracts to stay on Broadway. Then there are players like Chris Drury, Sean Avery and even Gaborik who while still under contract, but may no longer be a part of the franchise’s future plans.
Tortorella is right, the Rangers are not as talented as the Capitals or the Flyers or the Canucks for that matter, and they are not done building. Where they go from here will be the key to whether or not they can join the league’s elite and if next season will end a lot later than this season.