While the Devils were supposed to be in a growing year, their counterparts across the Hudson came into the season with optimistic expectations. Artemi Panarin is one of the NHL's most dynamic forwards. Rangers youngsters such as Adam Fox, Kaapo Kakko and Ryan Lindgren gained postseason experience in last year's bubble. To top it all off, they drafted Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 overall in October.
Yet the Rangers have endured a frustrating roller coaster of a season. A slow start put them on the outside looking in of the four playoff spots of the MassMutual East Division, but they've come alive in recent games. They're riding a four-game winning streak after a sweep of their lowly division rivals and sit four points out of a playoff spot, but they have to contend with four legitimate Stanley Cup hopefuls ahead of them. It's an uphill climb and a steep one.
The Blueshirts are in a strange sort of limbo. They probably aren't good enough to reach the postseason, but they're not bad enough to tank and try to get another high draft pick.
The Rangers have four key young players in the lineup in Lafreniere, 2019 first-rounder Kakko, 2018 first-round pick K'Andre Miller and goalie Igor Shesterkin (drafted No. 118 in 2014). They have one of the best forwards in the game in Panarin and a Norris Trophy hopeful in Fox.
Pavel Buchnevich celebrated his 26th birthday with his first career hat trick Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. Vitali Kravtsov, another 2018 pick, debuted earlier this month after a standout KHL career.
The club also boasts one of the NHL's top prospect pools, so it's impossible to not be excited about the future of the Rangers. But if they weren't able to do any damage in the East Division this year, then what will it take to compete in the Metropolitan Division moving forward?
Divisional alignment will play a role. The previous divisional format will likely return next season, so the Rangers won't be forced to play 32 games against the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. Seeing all 32 teams will level the playing field.
The trade deadline came and went without the Rangers making any major deals. Being good but not good enough is a tough spot for a general manager. Typically, it's frowned upon to not do anything at the deadline. It is a way to gain assets for the future, be it short-term or long-term. Be a buyer or be a seller, but don't do nothing.
But this was a unique situation where doing nothing was the best thing. General manager Jeff Gorton opted to not give up a key piece in the rebuild for a pricey rental who may be able to help the Rangers get to the playoffs but not much further.
The team should be aggressive in the trade market this summer. The Rangers have nine draft picks this year and seven next year, including both first-round picks. At some point, they'll have to upgrade Panarin's center, and Buffalo's Jack Eichel should be the obvious target. The Rangers have to decide if Eichel, along with the five years and $50 million left on his contract, is worth it or if they can stand pat with Ryan Strome as Panarin's linemate.
But elite, playmaking centers of Eichel's caliber don't come along often. Scoring wingers of Panarin's caliber don't come along often either, and elite tandems like that usually lead to championships. Just ask Ryan Getzlaf about having Corey Perry on his wing with the Anaheim Ducks or Jonathan Toews about having Patrick Kane by his side in Chicago.
Eichel leads the Rangers brass to what might be the biggest question of the offseason: Do they keep coach David Quinn or go in another direction for the next step in this rebuild?
Quinn, the former Boston University coach hired in 2018, has been scrutinized for the slow development of Kakko and Lafreniere. The criticism hit a fever pitch when Quinn and his assistants were forced to quarantine because of COVID-19 protocols in March. Kris Knoblauch, the head coach of the team's AHL affiliate, took over behind the bench. In Knoblauch's first game filling in for Quinn, the Rangers walloped the Flyers 9-0, and the team went on a 4-2 run with him in charge.
Established coaches like Claude Julien are out there, and others will become available after the season ends. But Eichel might want to play for Quinn, his former college coach, and the younger players might be better served with some coaching continuity.
The kids on the team will get a crash course in elevated play over the final month of the season. Forget all of the analytics and underlying numbers. Kravtsov, Miller, Kakko and Lafreniere will get bigger roles, play bigger minutes and face difficult matchups.
Maybe they'll steal a few more wins than anticipated and get themselves into a postseason position. If not, this kind of late-season experience may be more beneficial than playing in lopsided postseason losses anyway.
The next step in this rebuild should be the one that gets the Rangers back into contention, not just for playoff spots but for Stanley Cups too. Their core is too good and their farm system is too deep for anything else. The Rangers are almost ready to contend again, but the club has to answer some big questions before it can take that next step.