GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Amidst the rubble of a disappointing end to an uplifting season, Rangers general manager Glen Sather will need to be careful in rebuilding the Rangers’ mansion.
Despite the crushing frustration of an underachieving postseason, it will be important not to make rash, reckless decisions. There are virtually no circumstances under which Rick Nash – who scored only five goals this postseason – should be traded. Despite a lack of goals, he had a postseason filled with high-impact performances.
“It’s been tough to sleep the last few nights. Just thinking about the players we had, it’s been really frustrating to kind of digest this feeling,” Nash said on Monday during the team’s break-up day at their suburban practice facility. “As you get older in age, you think about these opportunities aren’t going up to come up too much. This was one of our best chances.”
“Yeah, Rick does so many other things too,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “But at the end of the day, we had that talk with him [on Monday], in every playoff he’s played, he’s improved. He was an older player when he got to New York, having only had four games [of playoff experience]. He’s getting better, he understands that his contribution is real important. I think it’s only going to continue to improve.”
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers weren’t done in by their skill, they were done in by serious injuries to some of their most important players. First-line winger Mats Zuccarello suffered a small skull fracture and a brain contusion when he was struck by Ryan McDonagh’s shot during Game 5 of the first round. He spent three days in a hospital, and couldn’t talk for four days. He missed the rest of the postseason, but is expected to make a full recovery and be ready for training camp.
“It was scary,” Zuccarello said. “The doctors were really good, made sure I knew I was going to be healthy. After a while there, I was just happy to recover.”
“Nobody really knew what was going on the night of,” McDonagh said. “After the game I went to our trainer to ask where he was, he said [Zuccarello] was in the hospital. I went with our doc to see him. It was not a very good sight, for sure. You don’t want to see your teammate in a hospital bed with wires going every which way, making sure he was OK.”
McDonagh broke his foot during the second period of Game 4 against the Lightning, playing the final three games in extreme pain and with limited mobility. Marc Staal was also a victim of the injury bug. He suffered a hairline fracture in his ankle late in the regular season, playing the entire postseason with the injury. Keith Yandle was also banged up, he suffered a sprained shoulder during the first round, and wasn’t completely healthy until the conference finals.
“The goal was a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said. “There are a lot of things that have to happen to get there. There were so many positive things from within this group. If you’re looking at it strictly from the fact that we didn’t get to the Cup, it’s very disappointing. But there were so many other positive elements, I’m trying to sort that out in my mind.”
The Rangers were not good enough in this postseason. Perhaps because they were banged up, perhaps because the playoffs are a crap-shoot. It’s not the best team that wins, it’s the team playing the best at the time. It’s the team that gets lucky.
Thanks in large part to all their injuries, the Blueshirts were certainly unlucky this postseason. At the end of their 2014 playoff run, a loss in the Stanley Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings, no injuries were reported to their top players. This postseason was a different story. Their top winger missed his team’s final 14 games. Four of their defenseman, including Dan Girardi (sprained knee) were beset by ailments.
“Next year it’s a re-start button,” Vigneault said. “Restart. We’ve got to get into the playoffs. That’s going to be a great challenge. Then you’re going to fight for home ice. That’s going to be another challenge. Then it’s going to be, try to win your first playoff round. You restart every year. If the Stanley Cup champions from last year didn’t get [into the playoffs], and the Presidents’ Trophy winner [from last year] didn’t get in, she’s a tough league to get in.”
It’s true every team gets banged up this time of year, but not every team is forced to battle through injuries to such important players.
“We’ve got a lot of good hockey players in this room,” Staal said. “We’ve had a lot of success in winning games, we just haven’t been able to finish it off and win the championship. Everybody in here believes we can do it, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”
Tweaks will be made this offseason, they always are. The Rangers have four restricted free agents they’d like to bring back: forwards Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, J.T. Miller, and Jesper Fast. They’re probably interested in re-signing unrestricted free agent defenseman Matt Hunwick. The salary cap could force them to make difficult decisions.
“If you ask me do I believe in this group?” Vigneault asked. “I would say my answer is yes.”
It’s important not to overreact to this defeat. These Rangers were good enough. They proved that over the six-month regular-season grind, the best regular season in franchise history.
“It’s been a very emotional and challenging last few days for our group and myself,” Vigneault said. “After Game 7, my youngest daughter was crying for hours and I couldn’t get her to stop. Everybody that was close to me and myself, we all felt we were going to move on. It’s been hard to handle, but that’s life. Those are the cards we’ve been dealt. Now we need to pick up the pieces, pick up those cards, and find a way to become a better team and give ourselves a better chance next year.”
In the regular season, the Rangers got dealt pocket aces. In the postseason, they were dealt a four-five split. Injuries to four key players, leaving them five wins shy of a trip down the Canyon of Heroes.