Rangers losing is never easy, but winning is always harder

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

The New York Rangers record-setting 2023-24 season has ended, and not with the Stanley Cup held high over their heads as many had hoped. Losing is never easy, but winning is always harder. It’s another reminder for this core group, as roster changes are expected over the summer. The question is just how much change is coming?

Obviously, Peter Laviolette, who did an excellent job in his first year on Broadway will remain the bench boss. That being said, members of his coaching staff could be considered for head coaching positions around the league, especially Michael Peca.

In goal, both Igor Shesterkin and Jonathan Quick are under contract for next season continuing to give the Rangers elite goaltending. However, there are a number of Ranger free agents to consider, and some very good prospects that will likely squeeze some current roster players out.

The offseason has officially started for the Rangers and there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead.

Related: Rangers fall to Panthers

Disappointed Rangers head into uncertain offseason

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

When the final buzzer sounded Saturday, the Florida Panthers closed out the Rangers in six games and the search for scapegoats went into overdrive.

Another trip to the Eastern Conference Final that ended at the hands of a team built to win one-goal games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 2022, the Rangers could not get to the high-danger scoring areas against the Tampa Bay Lightning and fell in six games. It was the same exact story in 2024, with the Panthers putting the clamps down on a team that loves to go east-to-west in the offensive zone, unwilling to just dump, chase, and grind out ugly goals.

The main objective this summer is to fix that issue.

You can blame Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, and Adam Fox all you want. It doesn’t change the fact that without them, the Rangers wouldn’t have finished as the Presidents’ Trophy winners to be in this position.

However, the hard truth is that they struggle against big physical teams like Tampa and Florida. Unfortunately, the Rangers don’t have enough players like Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere, who seem to thrive against those type of teams to compensate.

On defense, the Blueshirts had a hard time keeping Florida out of Shesterkin’s house, and they paid for it in critical moments of the series. Braden Schneider was probably the most effective defenseman on both sides of the puck, and will be the prototype for what all future Rangers’ blue-liners will resemble. That overhaul needs to start on July 1, when free agency opens.

The same can be said of rookie Will Cuylle, who was easily the Rangers most consistently physical forward, but continued to get the short end of the ice-time stick likely due to his age. Monster-sized rookie Matt Rempe was not trusted to play more minutes due to inexperience, although that should change with a full season under Laviolette’s tutelage to gain that much needed trust between a coach and a player.

At the end of the day, president and general manager Chris Drury probably knew this was a flawed lineup. At the same time, he was right not to mortgage the future to acquire rental Jake Guentzel. There’s no guarantee his addition would’ve changed the outcome against Florida, and trading away a future power-forward in Brennan Othmann still makes little sense in hindsight.

Of course, if the report by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan that Drury turned down the Anaheim Ducks offer of Frank Vatrano and Adam Henrique for Kaapo Kakko and a first-round pick are entirely true, that’s definitely a mistake on his part. For once again, Kakko found himself a healthy scratch in the playoffs, and was a non-factor on most night with just two points in 15 postseason matches.

By the way, the Rangers will enter this summer still looking for a top-six right wing that Vatrano could’ve filled with a year remaining on his contract.

Hard choices loom for Rangers

Now that the season has come to an unfulfilling end, the organization has some hard decisions to make. New York has 18 players signed for next season with just a little over $11 million in cap space.

At the top of the list are the futures of their key restricted free agents. The aforementioned Kakko, along with defensemen Ryan Lindgren and Braden Schneider are up for new deals. Of the three, Schneider is the no-brainer to extend, and to a lesser degree Lindgren depending on how much he is looking for in money and years. On the other hand, it makes sense to move Kakko’s rights this summer to either move up in the first round of the draft, or package him in a deal to shed salary for more cap space.

Regarding their own unrestricted free agents, all of them should not even be considered for retention except for possibly Alex Wennberg. If Filip Chytil’s health is still a major concern, keeping Wennberg is a solid move.

Letting forwards Jack Roslovic, and Blake Wheeler walk is a given. Additionally, defenseman Erik Gustafsson struggled in his own end so much, that it’s obvious Zac Jones deserves his chance to take that spot as the sixth defenseman. As for Chad Ruhwedel, he was never used once in the postseason, so he will be moving on.

There’s no doubt that the Rangers lacked what it is needed to play hard-nosed playoff hockey against Florida. That doesn’t make calls for blowing the team up less ludicrous. But that doesn’t mean changes shouldn’t be considered, especially if you are looking to give younger, bigger players like Adam Edstrom, and Othmann a chance.

On defense, the Rangers will probably need to look at the UFA pool if they want to improve. One target they should consider is New York native Brett Pesce of the Carolina Hurricanes. Or how about Brandon Montour from the Panthers, who was an absolute beast in the Eastern Conference Final? While it would be nice to sign either of them, cap space is an issue, leading to the potential of trading one or two of the core leadership group in captain, Jacob Trouba, or forwards Chris Kreider and Barclay Goodrow. All three players have modified no-trade clauses and can be moved this offseason.

As I said earlier, losing is never easy, but winning is even harder. Come tomorrow on breakup day, the hard work starts, and it will come with a lot of hard decisions.

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore

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