Here’s what’s next for Rangers after being eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoffs

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

For the management, coaches and players of the New York Rangers, time doesn’t stop because their season is over. They need to properly digest what happened after losing the Eastern Conference Final to the Florida Panthers in six games after a special season that included franchise records for win (55) and points (114).

This is no easy time for the Rangers, a team that had all the makings of a champion, or at least one that could reach the Stanley Cup Final for only the second time in 30 years. From the first day of training camp, ending the Stanley Cup drought was the goal, especially after an embarrassing first-round playoff exit against the New Jersey Devils last spring.

New coach Peter Laviolette provided the road map of how to play, how to defend, and the players bought in. The stars appeared to be aligned, and not even a swoon in January was more than a bump in the road to the best regular season in Rangers history.

The Rangers started fast and finished stronger in the regular season. Then they won seven straight games to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And when finally pushed in the postseason after the Carolina Hurricanes won two straight games and were about to force Game 7 in the second round, the Rangers, in the form of Chris Kreider, had a massive response and pushback.

Even the 2-1 start to the conference final, with consecutive overtime wins and Igor Shesterkin’s brilliant play, fed the narrative that this was a special team, a special season.

Until it wasn’t anymore.

Three straight one-goal wins by the relentless Panthers and it was over. Just like that. Lights out. Please arrive home safely. See you in September.

Rangers management, the coaches and players can’t linger in the moment of the final gut punch that was Game 6 in South Florida on Saturday night. They will all surely carry that memory and be motivated by it, and hopefully learn from the ending.

But the hockey clock doesn’t stop nor slow down just because the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs and fell short of their goal.

Related: Igor Shesterkin, Henrik Lundqvist share unfortunate playoff history with Rangers

What’s next for Rangers after their 2023-24 season comes to end

Let’s examine what’s up next for the Rangers.

Get healthy, prepare for next season

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

We’ll find out more when the Rangers hold their final media avails this week, but it’d appear that there are no major injuries to deal with. Adam Fox sure seemed hobbled after that first-round knee-on-knee hit from Washington Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen, but didn’t miss a shift much less a game, and averaged 23:57 of ice time in the playoffs. So, let’s see what’s up there.

Jimmy Vesey sustained an upper-body injury on a Ryan Lomberg hit in Game 2 of the conference final. But the forward was skating in a no-contact jersey by the end of the series. He bears watching on break-up day.

Ryan Lindgren was clearly banged up in the Panthers series. But he doesn’t appear to have anything serious going on.

If anything, the Rangers got healthier as the postseason progressed. Filip Chytil and Blake Wheeler each returned from extended injury absences. However, each forward was rusty and largely ineffective against the Panthers. But still, there shouldn’t be lingering doubts if Chytil can play next season now that he returned and showed he was past his recent concussion issues, though that will always bear watching.

Make important decisions on roster makeup for next season

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

General manager Chris Drury, with Laviolette’s veteran input, must make important decisions on New York’s lineup moving forward. After cruising through the regular season and much of the postseason, they were physically manhandled for large parts of the conference final.

You can argue the Rangers face the same question that the Panthers did a couple years ago after they won the Presidents’ Trophy before being a quick out in the playoffs. Are we tough enough mentally and physically to win the Stanley Cup?

The Panthers decided they weren’t and made a blockbuster trade, dealing Jonathan Huberdeau to the Calgary Flames for abrasive and skilled forward Matthew Tkachuk. It took time for that team to come together, but since they’ve reached the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row.

The Rangers don’t have the option to make such a dramatic move. Not that they want to trade Artemi Panarin, for example, but he’s locked into two more years with a no-move clause in his contract. But that doesn’t mean the Rangers won’t look to add size and talent, both on the wing and at defense.

In-house forward candidates Brennan Othmann and Will Cuylle are interesting, young, physical options to play big roles. But that could be a stretch for a Rangers team with a Stanley Cup-or-bust mentality.

Free agency

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Carolina Hurricanes
James Guillory-USA TODAY SportsCredit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, a big part of building next season’s roster revolves around free agency. There are five important unrestricted free agents on the current roster. Perhaps there’s an appetite to bring back Alex Wennberg at the right price as third-line center, but it’s hard to imagine Jack Roslovic, Blake Wheeler, Erik Gustafsson or Chad Ruhwedel wearing the Blueshirt next season.

Kaapo Kakko is a restricted free agent, who believes he deserves a much bigger role, but hasn’t come close to earning the trust of this coaching staff. Would the Rangers consider trading the former No. 2 overall pick in the draft? It could be an option, especially if Drury wishes to free up some money to make a splash in the free-agent market, or needs it to extend Shesterkin, who’s eligible for a massive pay raise with 2025 free agency looming.

The Rangers have a touch over $12 million in salary-cap space heading into the offseason.

Lindgren is an interesting case. The heart-and-soul defenseman is an RFA and that can be a difficult contract to work out. The Rangers should have some fears about a long-term deal at significant dollars because of Lindgren’s style that welcomes injury at every turn.

Braden Schneider is also an RFA, but the Rangers will move quickly to get that deal done.

As for big-name free agents out there, the Rangers could be limited in who they can chase. But Tyler Toffoli would be an intriguing rugged, offensively-gifted Stanley Cup winner to consider.

Find a right wing to play with Mika Zibanejad & Chris Kreider

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Toffoli fits into the equation of a problem the Rangers simply have not fixed for years. They need to fins a right wing to play on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider.

The Rangers cycled through Roslovic, Kakko, Wheeler, Vesey, Chytil, Panarin, pretty much everyone but you and I during the regular season and postseason. None were a great fit 5vs with the BFFs. And this is an ongoing problem, one that’s loomed for years, since Pavel Buchnevich was traded to the St. Louis Blues.

Frank Vatrano slotted in there nicely in 2022 after the trade deadline. But for some reason, fitting in with Zibanejad and Kreider is extremely difficult. And it helped speed up the Rangers’ demise against the Panthers, when Laviolette mixed and matched with a new linemate every game.

Maybe Othmann or Cuylle gets a look. Maybe the Rangers kick the tires on Sam Reinhart, Jake Guentzel or Toffoli in free agency. But this area needs to be fixed.

2024 NHL Draft

As of today, the Rangers have four picks in the 2024 NHL Draft, which takes place at the Sphere in Las Vegas on June 28-29. Drury held tight to his first-round pick ahead of the trade deadline, so the Rangers will select late in the first round. We’re not talking Macklin Celebrini here, but the Rangers should be able to fortify their prospect pool nonetheless.

New York doesn’t have a pick in the second- nor third round, but it does have selections in rounds four, five and six.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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