As Glen Sather looks around the NHL for what will be available in a month from now on July 1st, two things are, or should be, clear in his mind: the New York Rangers are an elite team in the Eastern Conference, and the Rangers do not need a summer like last year to take the team to the next level.
Before last year, the signings of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez provided Ranger fans with hopes of a Stanley Cup, and the changing of the guard of the Rangers offense from captain Jaromir Jagr to the two centers. While it is important to keep Jagr for next year, a priority for the Rangers should be to get a winger that can feed off of Gomez's speed and playmaking abilities. Sather should be looking strongly at players like free agents Brian Rolston and Ryan Malone, or players in the Rangers system such as Lauri Korpikoski and 2007 first-round draft pick Alexei Cherepanov.
As for Jagr, it is clear that he can't do what he used to for an 82-game regular season and the playoffs. However, Jagr, who led the Rangers with 71 points in the regular season (25 goals, 46 assists) and 15 points in 10 playoff games, can turn it on when it matters most, and carry a team in the playoffs. Therefore, the captain should be back on Broadway for 08-09, but his role should be a secondary scorer, and the lead role given to Gomez.
While Jagr should be back for next year, many of his Czech teammates might not. Out of the Czechs, only Petr Prucha is under contract, and even he could be shopped around in trade packages. Martin Straka has played his last game as a Ranger, as at age 35 (age 36 on September 3rd) his best days are far behind him, and his salary too high if the Rangers want to improve offensively.
Defensemen Michal Roszival and Marek Malik are also free agents, and only Roszival has a slight chance of returning to the Rangers blueline in 08-09. However, with upgrading the defense a priority and a variety of defenseman available, Roszival's asking price might be too high for the Rangers.
Considered the biggest weakness for the Rangers, the defense has to be upgraded in order for the Rangers to be serious in '09. While the Rangers' goals allowed was one of the lowest in the NHL (thanks in large part to Henrik Lundqvist), the Rangers need either a power-play quarterback, or a punishing physical presence. If the Rangers let Straka, Malik, and Rozsival leave, the Rangers should have enough cap space to consider defensemen like Brooks Orpik, or maybe even Brian Campbell if nobody can lock him up. Another option for the Rangers is Andrew Hutchinson, who had a terrific year in Hartford as their captain, and can provide offense as well as physicality to his game.
Another concern that Ranger fans have is whether they have seen Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery in a Rangers uniform for the last time. In Shanahan's case, the decision will fall largely on what Shanahan wants to do. While Jagr is the captain, even he has said that Shanahan has as large of an impact as anyone on the Rangers behind the scenes, and there are many instances when the reluctant-to-speak Jagr will defer to Shanahan off of the ice.
However, on the ice, Shanahan's skills have diminished, and his lack of speed was on full display against Pittsburgh in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Should Shanahan decide to return for his 21st NHL season, he will have to accept a lesser role on the team.
In terms of the fan favorite Avery, who has never had a dull moment on Broadway in his year and a half with the Rangers, there will be problems between him and Sather about how much money the Rangers are willing to give him. Although Avery says he bleeds "True Blue", Sather has made it clear that that doesn't mean Avery will wear Ranger Blue. Also, Avery is recovering from a lacerated spleen, which could hamper the effectiveness of his physical game and antics which he has become synonymous with.
Whatever happens with the Rangers in the off-season, expect them to be among the teams in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals next season, if not further. They have arguably the best goaltender in the Eastern Conference in Henrik Lundqvist, and three effective scoring lines. However, for a team that has had such high expectations from within the organization, don't expect the Rangers to lay low come July.