Changes coming to Rangers, ‘you don’t keep everyone’

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

This postseason was supposed to be different for the New York Rangers. Until it was more of the same.

A record-setting regular season laid the groundwork for what was expected to be a special springtime in New York. A quick four-game sweep of the overmatched Washington Capitals in the first round began the parallel from the last truly special April through June in New York City back in 1994. That continued when the current Rangers won their first seven postseason games, just like in ’94.

The “Team of Destiny” vibes intensified in Round 2 with overtime victories in Games 2 and 3, which proceeded Chris Kreider’s legacy-defining natural hat trick in Game 6 to oust the hated Carolina Hurricanes, harkening back to Mark Messier 30 years ago.

But then things changed as they so often do. Sure, there were two more overtime wins early in the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers that added more fuel to the fire that this was the year things would be different.

Until they weren’t.

The Rangers showed how far they truly are to winning their first Stanley Cup in what will now be at least 31 years when they lost the final three games to the Panthers. And that distance must have president and general manager Chris Drury asking some difficult questions about who can or should be part of ending that long title drought.

While the emotions of that 2-1 defeat in Game 6 on Saturday were raw, there was already talk of what changes could come to this group following its second conference final defeat in three seasons.

So now change is coming.

“That’s the s—ty part of any season,” Adam Fox said postgame. “I think there’s so many guys that came and helped, just because you know in pro sports you don’t keep everyone and teams change, but I think the culture we’ve built here, the camaraderie we’ve had is something that — you’re gonna have some turnover — I think the foundation is here.”

Related: Here’s what’s next for Rangers after playoff elimination

Roster changes inevitable for Rangers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Drury was lauded for his thrifty spending last offseason. He filled holes in his lineup with veterans on the cheap. But as we approach 12 months later, only goalie Jonathan Quick has an extension and is guaranteed a spot with the Rangers next season.

Blake Wheeler and Erik Gustafsson are unrestricted free agents signed last July 1, both unlikely to return.

Wheeler struggled and never found his spot in the lineup before his leg injury in February kept him out of the lineup until Game 4 of the conference final. He took the penalty that led to Florida’s game-winner in overtime, though Mika Zibanejad had plenty of culpability there too.

Gustaffson, meanwhile, performed well during Fox’s month-long absence in November, posting 11 points. But after losing that spot on the top power-play unit when Fox returned, he scored just three goals and had 16 points after the calendar turned to December. As an offensive blueliner, more production is expected.

Drury opted for singles and doubles this trade deadline after being criticized a year prior for going for home runs and even grand slams. The Rangers didn’t chase the next Vladimir Tarasenko or Patrick Kane, and the depth moves made were similar to the 2022 deadline.

Forwards Alex Wennberg and Jack Roslovic, along with defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, were brought in prior to the deadline to varying degrees of success, though none pushed down the stretch to command a new deal for next season.

Wennberg was solid defensively — especially on the penalty kill — but brought nearly no offense outside of his overtime-winner in Game 3 against Florida, his only goal in the postseason.

Roslovic, meanwhile, wasn’t the answer as the team’s top right wing — something Drury has spent numerous capital looking for since essentially giving away Pavel Buchnevich. His only two postseason goals were against Washington, and he had just four points — including two in Game 6 against Carolina — the rest of the way. Roslovic ended the playoffs skating on the fourth line.

With both players coming off contracts paying them north of $4 million — in Wennberg’s case, nearly $5 million — it’s hard to imagine Drury not finding others to play those roles on much cheaper contracts.

Ruhwedel was pointless in five regular-season games and didn’t dress in the playoffs.

Drury also has decisions to make on several RFAs, including Kaapo Kakko and Ryan Lindgren.

Kakko expects a bigger role but doesn’t have the trust of this coaching staff. He could be a trade candidate or, at least, a difficult offseason contract negotiation. Lindgren is a worthy candidate to keep, but his style of play lends itself to injury and a player who break down physically sooner rather than later.

It’s been nearly nine months since training camp commenced. The trade deadline was more than three months ago. This group of roughly 25 players battled together, traveled together, celebrated and cried together. No one is ever ready for it to end and the ultimate change that comes with it.

“It feels like a family in here,” Zibanejad said Saturday. “I think we’ve been working since training camp started. A lot of guys have been here from before and the new guys that came in have been unbelievable.

“This obviously makes it a lot harder to lose.”

Matt Calamia spent six seasons as a digital content producer and writer for the New York Rangers. Prior to... More about Matt Calamia

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