New York Rangers: Many Questions Loom After Early Exit

Kevin McRae@@McRaeWritesFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 26:  Nikolai Zherdev #13 of the New York Rangers hugs Scott Gomez #19 after a goal in their game against the Washington Capitals during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 26, 2009 in New York, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Lately, the New York Rangers seem to have this down to a science.  Heartbreaking exit in April, followed by a summer of uncertainty. 

For four games, Henrik Lundqvist looked like the most dominant goalie in the playoffs.  The Capitals were simply not able to get anything by him, despite registering more than 160 shots on goal.

Even after jumping out to a 3-1 lead, despite being outplayed in all their victories, the Blueshirts seemed poised on the precipice of disaster.  Eventually their total lack of scoring punch and defensive breakdowns would cost them against the most dangerous offensive team in the NHL

It also didn't help that the officiating in this series was questioned by many.  Somebody will still need to explain how a hit the NHL deemed as worthy of a six playoff game suspension was ruled "clean" and not worthy of a major penalty by the on-ice officials.

After back to back routes, including an inexcusable non-effort on home ice, few gave the Rangers a chance in last night's Game Seven at the Verizon Center.  A solid defensive effort and strong goaltending kept the Rangers in the game heading into the third period, but it was once again their stunning inability to score or even get shots that led to a 2-1 defeat. 

Three-to-one lead: Gone.

Season: Over. 

So once again, the questions begin.  This is a team with major issues on both ends of the ice that need to be addressed.  One issue that shouldn't even be addressed is the head coaching situation. 

Make no mistake about it, John Tortorella needs to be the coach of this team next season.  For all his quirks and abrasive manner, "Torts" worked a minor miracle even getting this team to the playoffs and into a position to play a Game Seven. 

When he took over this team from Tom Renney, they were left for dead.  It's a difficult job to inherit a slumping team and change a mindset with just 20 games left in a season.  Given an entire off-season and training camp, this will be a different team next year under his leadership. 

It's a simple philosophy really: buy into the system or you don't play.  Accountability was missing from this team for too long and, at the very least, Torts brought it back.

General Manager Glen Sather, on the other hand, should be on the hot seat.  More than any coach, he was responsible for putting this team together.  It was Sather who decided to let Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan walk.  What Rangers fan didn't stop at some point this season and wonder if Shanny could've upgraded the power play?

It was Sather who brought in three high-profile busts in Wade Redden, Nikolai Zherdev, and Markus Naslund last Summer.  Redden, who had something to prove after leaving Ottawa, was often tentative, turnover-prone and did nothing on special teams. 

Naslund netted 24 goals and had 22 assists but saw his numbers decline for a fifth straight season (84, 79, 60, 55, 46).  Luckily Naslund is only signed for a reasonable $4 million next year while Redden is around for another five years.

Zherdev gave every indication in the early going that he was poised for a breakout season (remember the tying goal against Pittsburgh?).  But it soon became apparent to anyone watching the games that there was a reason Columbus basically gave him away.  He is often lazy and struggles to keep his head in the game. 

All the talent in the world couldn't compensate for his lack of killer instinct and mental toughness. Zherdev was a non-entity down the stretch and in the playoffs having not registered a goal after March 26.

It was also Sather who was responsible for the egregious four-year, $20 million dollar contract given to Michael Rozsival.  Rozsival, who has yet to find someone he didn't want to hit, was a frequent target of the Garden boo-birds this year for his tentative, uninspired play. 

Sather ultimately built this team and he needs to be held accountable for his decisions.  Nobody can take away his accomplishments with Edmonton in the 1980s.  But his reputation with the Rangers is far less sterling.  Time for him to ride away into the sunset.

The Rangers offseason plans need to address serious holes on both offensive and defensive sides of the puck.  This team lacks a legitimate night in-night out scoring threat.  It also lacks a big, bruising shutdown defenseman.  The type of player who makes the other team's stars think twice about paying the price for time in the offensive zone. 

Unfortunately the Rangers are saddled with four of the worst contracts in hockey that will eat up much of their cap.  Scott Gomez ($7,357,143), Chris Drury ($7,050,000), Wade Redden ($6,500,000), and Michael Rozsival ($5,000,000) all have prohibitive cap numbers making them difficult/impossible to move. 

The most tradable might be Gomez who would flourish in an up-tempo Western Conference system. A team like Vancouver, who could lose both Henrik and Daniel Sedin to free agency, could look at Gomez as an alternative.

The Rangers also have many core young players who are restricted free agents this offseason.  Signing guys like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Lauri Korpikoski and Freddie Sjostrom is a priority.  Even if they didn't have the numbers of some other guys, they provided the little heart this team had this season.

Next comes the question of what to do with the unrestricteds?  Nik Antropov and Derek Morris both came over at the deadline and are UFAs. 

Antropov showed flashes of brilliance but came up small in the playoffs. 

Morris is likely as good as gone. 

Blair Betts, he of the Donald Brashear-induced broken face, is the best penalty killer in the league and should be back.  As should Paul Mara, who accepted a one year renewal last year, and was the Rangers best defenseman for much of the year.

The question now becomes where is the scoring punch going to come from?  The biggest names on the market are the two Marians, Gaborik and Hossa.  Beyond that, it's a steep drop off on scoring wingers.  Brian Gionta?  Alex Tanguay?  Not exactly the kinda guy that keeps coaches up at night gameplanning. 

Gaborik may have a higher upside, he's three-years younger than Hossa, but neither will come cheap. 

And neither will be an option unless the Rangers can clear some cap space. 

New York currently has just ten players under contract for next season totalling just over $42 million dollars against the cap.  If the cap either shrinks or remains stationary next season, this would make for a tight squeeze.

Both Gaborik and Hossa are proven 30-plus goal scorers and both would fit nicely on Broadway.  On the defenseman front, there are many big names available but most are of the older variety.  The biggest name on everyones list is obviously Jay Bouwmeester but, again, we run into money problems. 

Perhaps even more than last year this version of the New York Rangers faces many questions.

Hopefully Glen Sather won't be the one answering them.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.