Now that the book is closed on the 2011-12 NHL season, we can focus in on the offseason and look ahead to next season.
The Kings proved they were the best the NHL had to offer and, with limited team turnover expected, will be considered the favorites heading into the 2012-13 season. The Devils went on a run in the playoffs and turned some heads in nearly capturing their fourth Stanley Cup and will eager to get back again.
What about the New York Rangers?
Their impressive regular season translated into an immensely tough postseason that ended in heartbreaking fashion. The belief with the team was that they played their hearts out, but in the end, couldn't score that critical goal when needed.
With several team unrestricted and restricted free agents to contend with, and some money to spend on big-name players should they want to, the Blueshirts will look to improve their club any way they see fit.
Lets look at three reasons why the New York Rangers will be even better in 2012-13.
New York Rangers GM Glen Sather's offseason began a few weeks back and, now that the season is officially over, he can intensify his quest to improve the 109-point team from last season.
First and foremost, the Rangers' free agents will need new contracts and leading the group is RFA Michael Del Zotto.
The 21-year-old defenseman finished just his third full season in the NHL with a career-best 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) and solidified himself as an NHL player. His postseason performance—specifically in the Devils series—left a lot to be desired, though. However, he's still a baby in hockey terms and can only grow.
Del Zotto is due a significant raise, and New York would love to lock him up long term and take away some of his UFA years into consideration. However, Sather's reputation with RFAs is to take them to arbitration if needed to get a salary figure that's manageable (see Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky last summer).
Other significant free agents include Martin Biron, Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust—all of whom look to be back on Broadway next year.
We all know the high-profile players available this summer: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter etc. The one name gaining steam is Justin Schultz, the 21-year-old prospect of the Anaheim Ducks, who recently informed the team he doesn't intend to sign a new contract with the team and wants to test free agency.
Despite the Rangers having a ton of defensemen depth, Schultz is considered a top-four talent and, with the uncertainty around Michael Sauer's health, would bolster the young Rangers even more.
The one area that has to excite the team—and the fan base—are the prospects on the horizon and the one who made a significant impact in the 2012 playoffs.
It was a gamble by the Rangers expecting Chris Kreider to jump into playoff hockey and succeed, but that's exactly what he did. In 18 playoffs games, Kreider scored 5 goals—including two game-winners—and showed New York they had a future offensive star in the making. Seeing what Kreider can do over the course of an 82-game season will be exciting to watch.
Some other prospects that could make the jump and be productive next season for the Rangers are Christian Thomas and Tim Erixon.
Erixon showed glimpses of his talents in limited time in 2011-12, but it was clear he wasn't NHL ready. After a full year in the AHL, the 21-year-old defenseman might be ready to contend for a spot on the Rangers back line. Four spots will certainly be locked up by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto, leaving two open for competition. It could be Erixon's time.
After an electric 99-point campaign with the Oshawa Generals in 2010-11, Christian Thomas followed up with a 67-point campaign (34 goals, 33 assists) in 55 games. The 20-year-old sniper is small by NHL standards—5'9'', 170 pounds—but possesses pure goal-scoring ability, a great shot and a nose for the net—qualities most of the current Rangers lack. If Thomas has a standout training camp, he could see time on Broadway next season.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the Rangers will be better in 2012-13 will be the continued development of the team's young core.
Everyone from Ryan Callahan to Ryan McDonagh will have another year of experience under their belt—including 20 playoff games and the experience of Stanley Cup heartbreak—and will be better for it. Never underestimate what playoff experience can do for a young hockey team. It makes them battle-tested and more aware of what needs to be done in order to win.
Players like Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov—who all had disappointing playoff performances—will look to use their experiences and failures as the fuel to better themselves.
Their growth will not be interrupted as Glen Sather will not be trading any kids, meaning the core can continue to grow with each other and develop more chemistry. Adding complementary pieces along the way is the blueprint for sustainable success, not one-and-done chances.
The Rangers have a plan in place, and through smart drafting and shrewd transactions, have built a team from the ground up.
2012-13 could be the season in which all of the organization's tough work to re-invent the team pays off.