Sports

Rangers miss postseason for first time since 2009-10 season

The book has officially closed on the 2017-18 season for the New York Rangers. Sadly, this book does not have a happy ending. The Rangers failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

Many hockey experts and fans will say that the team’s overall performance was a huge disappointment, considering the expectations and roster talent that the Blueshirts possessed. However, this season was a much needed wake-up call.

For the past seven seasons, the Rangers put together rosters that were built for short-term success. Every acquisition was made with a win-now mentality. Despite seven consecutive postseason runs, the Rangers could never win the
Stanley Cup.

The team reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, but fell short against the Los Angeles Kings, and reached the Eastern Conference finals two other times in 2012 and 2015 before bowing out to the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively. Players like Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Marc Staal, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan were fan favorites for those seven years and created lots of memorable moments that will live in Rangers lore forever.

However, the consistent futility of the team when it mattered most signaled the need for change.

Those changes began with the 2017 offseason, when the Rangers bought out the final three years of Girardi’s contract. Girardi was a stalwart player who always exemplified how to be a great defender in the league.

The team also traded top center Stepan and elite backup goaltender, Antti Raanta, to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft. With that pick, the Rangers selected forward Lias Andersson. Even after such drastic roster overhauls, the Rangers still felt like they could compete for the postseason and made a few notable additions. They signed star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to a four-year, $26.6 million deal and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to a one-year, $1.3 million deal to back up Lundqvist. General manager Jeff Gorton believed that his team had the right combination of both young and veteran talent to still compete in the postseason.

The season did not get off to a very promising start. Through the first 12 games, the Rangers were an abysmal 3-7-2. Poor starts to games, falling behind early, disastrous penalty killing, horrific goaltending and a defense with more holes than Swiss cheese were all factors contributing to this dreadful opening stretch. Head coach Alain Vigneault was already on the hot seat, and it probably would have taken one more embarrassing loss to run him out of town. Luckily for Vigneault, the Rangers finished October with a comeback victory against the Vegas Golden Knights, a victory that began the team’s hottest stretch of the season.

The month of November saw a complete turnaround for the Rangers, as everything started to fall into place. Lundqvist found his game, the special teams were leading the way, and the defense started
to improve.

All of this led to a 10-3-0 stretch from Halloween night until the end of Thanksgiving weekend. December saw much of the same, with the exception of a struggling power play. The Rangers went 7-3-3 that month, led by Lundqvist’s resurgence in goal.

They finished the 2017 portion of the season with a respectable 20-13-5 record, but the myriad of injuries began to take their toll. The tough and reliable power forward Kreider suffered a blood clot in his left arm in a Dec. 27 game against the Washington Capitals and was sidelined indefinitely.

This was a tremendous loss, as Kreider added speed, size and skill all in one frame. He is a top-six forward and the team heavily relied on all of his aforementioned attributes. But the Rangers had to soldier on without him, as they were set to play in the 2018 NHL Winter Classic game at CitiField against the Buffalo Sabres.

The Winter Classic began the 2018 portion of the season, which the Rangers won in overtime by a score of 3-2. However, they struggled through January, going 5-7-0. The team was still in playoff contention at that point, but suffered another devastating loss.

Shattenkirk suffered a torn meniscus during a Jan. 16 game against the Philadelphia Flyers and was also ruled out indefinitely. The loss was not as impactful as that of Kreider, because Shattenkirk struggled defensively and did not meet his offensive expectations.

Still, he was a key contributor on the power play and that would
be missed.

The Rangers entered the All-Star break with a 25-20-5 record, following their stretch in January. Lundqvist was the team’s lone representative at the All-Star Game in Tampa, Florida.

With 32 games left for the Rangers, it was time for a strong push toward the postseason. But with the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaching, there were rumors and reports circulating around the team regarding the future of several players on the roster. Nash, McDonagh, and Michael Grabner were considered primary trade targets.

Such a scenario would only play out if the Rangers experienced a terrible breakdown and faltered down the stretch. Every game was followed by reports of teams being interested in acquiring these players, which caused some tension and anxiety within the team.

Following the All-Star break, the Rangers lost 11 of 13 games. At that point, management had seen enough, and their decision could not have been easier. A fire sale was underway and the Rangers found themselves playing the role of sellers rather than perennial short-term buyers. Their deals were focused on finding the right trading partners that had young players to build a future around.

On Feb. 20, the Rangers traded defenseman Nick Holden to the Boston Bruins in exchange for defenseman Rob O’Gara and a 2018 second-round draft pick. They then traded Grabner, the team’s leading goal scorer, to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for defensive prospect Yegor Rykov and a 2018 second-round draft pick. Three days later, the team traded Nash to the Bruins in exchange for forwards Ryan Spooner and Matt Beleskey, defensive prospect Ryan Lindgren, a 2018 first-round draft pick and a 2019 seventh-round draft pick.

However, the Rangers were still not done. In fact, they waited until one minute before the Feb. 26 trade deadline officially expired to make their biggest move. They traded defenseman and captain McDonagh, along with forward J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, prospects Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 conditional second-
round pick.

The 2019 conditional second-round pick will become a first-round pick if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup either this season or next season.

Clearly, the Rangers fully embraced the rebuilding process and did what they had to do. Some of the deals were hard to swallow for Ranger fans, as Nash, McDonagh and Miller were stalwarts on the team during their seven-year playoff stretch.

The month of March saw the Rangers give more opportunities to the younger players in order for them to gain experience, in addition to the new acquisitions. Players like Spooner and Namestnikov made immediate impacts on their new team with solid offensive
production.

Other young standouts who showed many signs of tremendous upside included defenseman Neal Pionk, forwards Andersson and Filip Chytil and goaltender Alexandar Georgiev.

All of these new faces had some memorable moments, most notably first NHL goals. Pionk, Andersson and Chytil all scored their first NHL goals during the month of March. Georgiev showed Ranger fans that he may be the eventual successor to Lundqvist. New franchise cornerstones, such as Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei, Zuccarello and Kreider who returned to the lineup during March, took on the leadership role that they will inherit starting next season. The team finished March with a 6-6-3 record and had just three more games in April to conclude the regular season.

Those games were a 5-2 loss to the Devils, a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders and a 5-0 loss to the Flyers. With that, the Rangers finished their 2017-18 campaign with a 34-39-9 record and 77 points.

Zibanejad led the Rangers in goals with 27, while Zuccarello led the Rangers in assists and points with 37 and 53, respectively.

Lundqvist finished with a 26-26-7 record, a 2.98 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. He failed to reach the 30-win plateau for the first time in his career during a full 82-game season.

The Rangers will now begin their search for a new head coach, as they fired Vigneault hours after their final game. Vigneault spent five seasons behind the Rangers bench, with a record of 226-147-37.

He led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, a Presidents’ Trophy in 2015 for having the league’s best regular-season record and three 100-point seasons. Vigneault’s 226 wins rank third all-time by a Rangers head coach, behind only Emile Francis and
Lester Patrick.

With three first-round picks and two second-round picks in the upcoming draft, the Rangers will have a chance to add more exciting youth to the roster.

Ranger fans should feel positive heading into next season and beyond, as their team begins a new chapter in its near century-
long history.

April 16, 2018

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Felix Malamud


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