They had a less successful 2014 offseason. Despite the Rangers’ reputation as the destination of choice for free agents, this summer the team was less Canaan and more Egypt; notable players tended to chase dollars elsewhere rather than follow them to New York.
The most significant summer departures included the following:
- Anton Stralman, the second-pair defenceman who was New York’s best right-side defender in the postseason
- Brad Richards, the No. 2 centre who was bought out of a long-term contract
- Benoit Pouliot, the third-line winger who added essential depth to the team and led it in playoff plus/minus
- Brian Boyle, the fourth-line pivot who was leaned on heavily in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill
Only one of those losses was offset to any degree, as the Rangers signed Dan Boyle to replace Stralman on the right side of the second pairing. New York’s second-priciest free-agent addition was Tanner Glass, who was brought in to replace the traded Derek Dorsett.
The upshot of it all is that the Rangers have an entire forward line of useful NHL players to replace internally, and even that grants that Boyle is Stralman’s equal on defence (which at this point in their respective careers he certainly is not).
The Richards buyout will force Derick Brassard into the second-line role, and with Dominic Moore likely returning on the fourth line, it opens up a hole in line three. Brassard is a good player and can likely handle things, but he’s going to be taking on a heavier load and won’t have the kind of shelter he produced so well in last year.
That’s the biggest problem, really. With Stepan and Richards on the first two lines, Brassard was in a position to exploit the opposition’s depth players. Now, head coach Alain Vigneault won’t have that luxury.
Instead, the third-line job will likely fall to a prospect—perhaps J.T. Miller, who scored well in the AHL last season and can play any position, or Oscar Lindberg, who showed flashes in his first year in North America. Either way, the third line will go from being an excellent offensive weapon to being a protected line.
The loss of Pouliot exacerbates the situation. Pouliot’s new contract in Edmonton is often a punchline, but he has had consistently good possession numbers, and he’s long been a dynamic even-strength scorer.
One neat way of putting it: Over the last five years, Pouliot’s been more likely to score on a given five-on-five shift than John Tavares—we’re ignoring ice time, context and special teams here, but it does speak to the Pouliot’s remarkable ability to generate offence at evens as a depth forward.
If an out-scorer such as Pouliot is replaced by yet another prospect—someone such as Jesper Fast—that third line gets weaker still. In fact, Vigneault’s best bet might be to dilute the second line to compensate, though of course that further spreads the frailty throughout the lineup.
Even the fourth line, which Vigneault has long used (going back to his Vancouver days) as a defensive- zone specialty unit, has suffered a major loss in Brian Boyle, a 6’7”, 244-pound colossus who kills penalties and wins faceoffs, too.
Ideally that line would have a second faceoff man, but it’s unclear who would take on the role. Further, it takes an extremely optimistic eye to assume that Glass is going to represent an upgrade on Dorsett on that unit.
Meanwhile, the defence is going to lean heavily on Dan Boyle, a 37-year-old rearguard who was exposed at times in San Jose last season. He’ll bring power-play ability that Stralman lacked, but at five-on-five, presumptive partner Marc Staal is going to be forced to cover for a player whose two-way ability has deteriorated sharply over the last few years.
Long term, the Rangers should be fine. The prospects promoted into holes this season will learn and grow and perhaps eventually outpace their predecessors.
But in the short term, the vaunted depth that propelled New York through the Eastern Conference has been shredded. More than ever, the team is going to be forced to rely on its top names, and the likelihood of an early postseason exit is greatly increased.
It’s also well worth remembering that the 2013-14 Rangers only made the playoffs by six points. If the early struggles of last season repeat themselves in 2014-15, missing the postseason entirely becomes a real possibility.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.