It is now widely acknowledged that the New York Rangers are no longer the team that we think about when we look back on their past several years.
Even within the organization itself, the front office acknowledges the need for a rebuild-on-the-fly, not that they’d ever be allowed to do a full-on, tear-it-down, tank-a-few-years demolition job. One wonders, then, what a rebuild on the fly actually looks like for this club, which for so long has had its success predicated almost entirely a good-ish offense and elite goaltending.
But the odds Henrik Lundqvist can be Henrik Lundqvist any more are now very much in doubt simply because he’s 35 and coming off what would be a rotten season by any standard, let alone his own lofty standard.
Last year, the fact that Antti Raanta played 30 games of .922 hockey is what kept the Rangers alive as a 100-point team; the club earned 34 points in his decisions, and two more in Magnus Hellberg’s two appearances (he played just 79 minutes).
But Raanta’s gone now, traded to Arizona, and replaced with Ondrej Pavelec, who’s a total wildcard in the crease. For some time now, the Rangers have been blessed with strong backup goaltending, but almost all of it was developed in-house. This is the first time in quite a while Lundqvist’s backup will be a UFA pickup, and if Mason does what Marty Biron did in the lockout-shortened season (.917) then that’s good for a backup. But that was also back when Lundqvist played the massive bulk of the Rangers’ minutes.
Lundqvist made just 57 appearances last season, down from 65 the year before, due in part to hip problems. Which, hey, a 35-year-old goalie, with Lundqvist’s kind of miles (19,300-plus minutes in a little more than a decade, plus playoffs, plus internationals), with a hip injury of any kind? That’s a major cause for concern.
And if Lundqvist isn’t effective, and Pavelec is even just pretty good, the odds this team misses the playoffs are strong. Of course, this could be a one-year blip on Lundqvist’s record too. The underlying numbers behind what made last year so ugly aren’t exactly encouraging, but this is arguably one of the five best goalies of all time, and he’s probably earned the benefit of the doubt even without taking his advanced age into account.
But the Rangers’ problems potentially go deeper than the net, which is nothing new. The defense is still a bit of a mess. McDonagh and Shattenkirk can certainly play, and Brendan Smith might be a little overpaid but that doesn’t diminish his strong middle-pairing capabilities. Brady Skjei seems promising. But what, exactly, is Anthony DeAngelo, who — whether you like it or not — was one of the cornerstones of the Raanta/Stepan trade? Tough to say. We know what Nick Holden and Marc Staal are, though: They’re bad. And if two of your defensemen are known-bad quantities, and another one is a total question mark, is that really what you need as you ostensibly keep trying to compete?
It’s just hard to see where the support comes from if the Rangers want to play up-tempo hockey. That’s also true in the forward group. Who are this team’s centers? Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, David Desharnais (oh yeah, they signed David Desharnais), maybe JT Miller? I dunno how far that gets you.
Zibanejad, by the way, is closing in on an arbitration date and probably wants a lot of money.
The loss of Derek Stepan was obviously a calculated one, but let’s not act like he isn’t a low-end No. 1 or elite No. 2. That’s tough to replace, and it seems like the Rangers didn’t even really try. They’re hoping young guys take a step this year, probably Miller in particular, but things are a little dicey here.
Not so on the wings, where the Rangers have plenty of guys who can play and, more importantly, can skate. I really like their winger group a lot pretty much up and down the roster.
Thing is, though, that this might be the Rangers’ last serious kick at the can as any sort of notable NHL team for a while. We know already that elite-level players just don’t hit unrestricted free agency, and the Rangers only have 11 — eleven! — players signed for 2018-19. Some of the people are are as yet unsigned include RFAs like Miller, Hayes, Skjei, and Jimmy Vesey; players they will have plenty of money and desire to re-sign. But going out the door are Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, guys that aren’t easy to replace. Couple that with a Lundqvist who will be another year older and a lot of the solid answers on this club over the past few years start to dry up quick.
Point is, it’s difficult to assess where the Rangers are headed. How much slack does Alain Vigneault, a good coach with a few unfortunate blind spots, have with management if this team starts to look like it might miss the playoffs? This isn’t exactly an easy division and you have to say the Rangers took a step back this summer. The odds that they lost 10 points or so in the standings aren’t significant, but one or two things go wrong and this starts looking like a non-competitive team in a hurry.
The bigger, overarching question is “What’s this club’s long-term plan in net,” especially since Lundqvist is signed for three seasons after the coming one at $8.5 million? Let’s acknowledge here their goaltending pipeline is stacked, but how much that helps the club in the next, say, three years is probably minimal.
The good news is that most of the good players already on the roster are in their mid- or late-20s, which buys them some time on the back end of a rebuild-on-the-fly. But it’s pretty reasonable to have a lot of concerns about this team’s chances to be anything other than a first-round bounce-out at best over the next two seasons.
Which, if you’re rebuilding — on-the-fly or otherwise — might not be that helpful. Picking in the mid-teens, whether you barely make the playoffs or barely miss them, doesn’t get you high-level talent. Last summer, Corey Pronman had the Rangers’ farm system as 28th in the league. You don’t improve on that much if you’re picking 16th, but you don’t get much better with a total talent sell-off. Which isn’t going to happen because that’s not what the Rangers do.
So it’s a tough situation overall, and it’s mostly because there might not be another choice for this franchise in particular.