Rangers face tough expansion draft, buyout decisions

After an emotional loss to the Ottawa Senators and elimination of the playoffs, New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault talks about how close the series was.

A sobering thought for New York: What if this is as good as it gets for this Rangers core?

Win a series or two, maybe three, but four? Never.

Only two NHL teams have sustained playoff relevance longer than the Henrik Lundqvist–era New York Rangers, who made their seventh consecutive post-season appearance this spring, only to lose out to a plucky, come-from-behind Ottawa Senators group.

Those other two hockey powers with more consecutive playoff berths, Pittsburgh and Chicago, have five championships between them.

Despite holding leads for the bulk of the series' six games, rolling out a deeper cast of forwards and dressing the more showtime goaltender, the Rangers' Stanley Cup bid came up short again for the 22nd straight season.

"All you feel is disappointment, and it’s a numb feeling," Lundqvist, 35, told reporters Tuesday night. "It was right there for us."

Mats Zuccarello said the Rangers gave the series away. Captain Ryan McDonagh said the Rangers have nobody to blame but themselves.

"The next week or so you are going to analyze your own game and analyze what we did as a group," Lundqvist said, "See what we could have done better, and learn from it.”

What we've learned is that general manager Jeff Gorton faces a difficult — and expensive — task this summer as he endeavours to make this a better team in 2017-18.

For as frustrating as this just-shy-of-greatness team has been, the Rangers are in no position to rebuild.

Head coach Alain Vigneault isn't going anywhere; he inked a juicy three-year extension mid-season. Neither is Lundqvist. The masked face of the franchise is unmovable, signed through 2020-21 at an $8.5-million cap hit. So let's look at the areas of change.

Forwards
Sure, Rick Nash is overpaid at $7.8 million for one more season, and he must be protected from the expansion draft (more on that later). But for the most part, the Rangers' offensive group is in fantastic shape.

Outside of Nash, 32, and fourth-liner Tanner Glass (a UFA unlikely to be re-signed), none of New York's forwards have celebrated a 30th birthday. A score-by-committee cast, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast and Jimmy Vesey are all 26 or under.

New York finished fourth this season in scoring. Re-signing RFAs Zibanejad and Fast for reasonable dollars is a priority.

That the Rangers have already spent their 2017 second- and third-round draft picks makes it highly unlikely they'll deal their Round 1 pick — their first since 2012! — in an effort to patch up their greatest need: defence. Perhaps RFAs like Lindberg, Matt Puempel or Brandon Pirri become available. Trade from strength to improve weakness.

Defence
In his familiar state of numbness, Lundqvist pointed to the frequency of odd-man rushes as a big difference in the Ottawa series.

The NHL's two most popular buyout candidates looked up on CapFriendly's buyout calculator are Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, the Rangers most handsomely paid defenders.

Girardi, 33, is beloved in the room. He's also set to earn $5.5 million for three more seasons. Staal, 30, is signed through four more seasons at a $5.7 million cap hit. Combined, they were minus-2 with two assists in these playoffs.

One or both must go, especially if the Rangers, as expected, are taking a run at puck-moving New Yorker Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency. The good news is, this is a cash-rich franchise that can stomach a buyout better than most.

Rookie wonder Brady Skjei, 23, can hopefully take another step, and rental Brendan Smith (UFA), who was a team-best plus-8 in the playoffs, should be kept at a reasonable price.

Because the prospect pipeline is more bottom-three than top-four material, a trade, a flashy signing or both must happen if Gorton wants to improve his blue line.

Expansion draft loss
The Rangers are one of a few teams (we see you, Anaheim) bound to lose an important piece in June's Vegas expansion draft, or pay a hefty price not to.

Michael Grabner, who scored 27 regular-season goals and added four more in the playoffs, is fast, productive and cheap ($1.65 million).

Antti Raanta (26-13-3, .920 save percentage, $1 million cap hit) is one of the league's best backup goalies. The chances of them both being Blueshirts next season is all but zero.

As Lundqvist gets older and worse — despite a solid playoffs, the King's .910 save percentage in 2016-17 was his lowest ever — you need a No. 2 capable of 20 to 25 starts. If Raanta is taken or traded, is it as simple as handing 26-year-old prospect Magnus Hellberg the ballcap?

Maybe. But more proven options will be out there. Mike Condon, Anders Nilsson, Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason and Brian Elliott are some names.

The suggestion that the Rangers must "blow it up" is one borne more out of frustration than rationality.

A security blanket for a seemingly declining Lundqvist and an aggressive approach to overhauling the blue line could make the Rangers a contender once again in the toughest division in pro sports.