The New York Rangers played well under the stewardship of John Tortorella, earning a playoff spot and pushing the Washington Capitals to seven games in the first round.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what promises to be a challenging summer for the Rangers, as some of the ill-advised high-priced contracts on the roster already could pose challenges when it comes to summer acquisitions.
While the Rangers' cap situation isn't quite as dire as their actual salary commitments (thanks to front-loaded contracts for Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden) would make it seem, but it's not easy to build a contending team under the cap when the top-priced players aren't performing.
At the same time, the new approach under John Tortorella should provide a sense of hope. The Rangers' chemistry in recent seasons has been a fragile mix that somehow ends up working better with Sean Avery included and he's back in the lineup.
While making a big-splash signing can be high-risk for the Rangers, given the returns they've received from their most recent dips into the free agent market, but standing pat doesn't seem to be a likely option.
Since the season ended, the Rangers have signed Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy and Finnish defenceman Ilkka Heikkinen and it would seem a natural for centre Artem Anisimov to secure a spot on next year's roster after a strong year in the AHL.
So there will be some new faces in Gotham next season, but it will require dramatic progress to elevate the Rangers from a playoff team to one of the true contenders.
Glen Sather/John Tortorella
Top Prospects: Artem Anisimov (37-44-81, plus-12 in 80 GP; Hartford-AHL), Evgeny Grachev (40-40-80, plus-48 in 60 GP; Brampton-OHL), Dane Byers (4-3-7, minus-2 in 9 GP, Hartford-AHL)
After putting up just 58 points, to tie for the team lead, Scott Gomez leaves the Rangers in a quandary. He's a decent player, but not worth the kind of money the Rangers are paying him. Considering the Rangers' financial position, they would probably like to deal Gomez in order to create cap space, but that's easier said than done when the salary cap is expected to decrease -- if not this season, then next.
Chris Drury has been similarly productive, which makes it just as difficult to swallow his salary. He'll be 33 by the time next season rolls around, so it's hard to count on a dramatic reversal. Drury's topped 20 goals nine times in his ten-year career yet exceeded 30 goals just twice, so the most reasonable expectation would put him somewhere between the two. That's okay production, but not nearly enough for a superstar paycheque.
It wasn't exactly an ideal season for Sean Avery, who spent half the season in exile, but the superpest was effective when the Rangers brought him back into the fold. Sure, there were some low points in the playoffs, it's going to be a constant test of John Tortorella's patience and it's hard to say if Avery's contributions are worth his salary (noticing a trend here?), but the Stars pick up half the tab and he adds some bite to a Rangers lineup that needs it.
After opening the season with nine points in the first eight games, Aaron Voros came crashing to earth, scoring seven in his next 46 contests. Voros has size, and is a battler, but he's not talented enough for more than a fourth-line role.
Restricted free agents dominate the Rangers forward landscape and, given their financial situation, it could be difficult to match too many competing offers.
Ryan Callahan had a breakthrough season, finishing strong on his way to 22 goals and 40 points. Callahan brings relentless pressure on the forecheck, plays hard up and down his wing and has shown a scoring touch. He should be a part of the solution at -- and this is important -- the right price.
Nikolai Zherdev is extremely talented, though he seems to be a square peg in a round hole at times. Easily the Rangers' most skilled and dynamic puckhandler, Zherdev didn't receive as much power play time as Gomez, Drury or Markus Naslund.
Zherdev comes across as an enigmatic talent, but there is a sense that he could be electrifying in the right situation.
If there's a Rangers forward who would seem to ideally fit the in-your-face mentality of John Tortorella, it may be Brandon Dubinsky, a durable, blue-collar player who eagerly gets involved in the physical side of the game and has some offensive instincts as well.
While not terribly productive, Lauri Korpikoski displayed potential in his rookie season, showing a lot of hustle and good strength along the boards. If he can build on that next season, perhaps handling more ice time, that would be nice progress.
Fredrik Sjostrom is another high-effort player and he has good speed for the penalty kill but, through five NHL seasons, hasn't shown enough to warrant better than fourth-line duty.
Even if the Rangers manage to keep all of their restricted free agents, it could be challenging to land a marquee free agent without making a move to clear cap space though, given the Rangers' history, that idea can't be discounted.
The Rangers could find a way to get involved in trying to make a high-stakes free agent addition, but may well do so at the peril of losing a restricted free agent forward. After all, if teams were willing to make offers to Steve Bernier and David Backes last summer, wouldn't Callahan or Dubinsky hold at least similar attraction this year?
That situation may not preclude the Rangers pursuing a big-time scorer like Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat, figuring that one of them may be able to bring the best out of Gomez, ideally fixing one high-priced problem rather than creating another one.
On the other hand, the Rangers may be able to find better value with veteran free agent forwards like Mike Knuble, Steve Sullivan or perhaps a one-year deal for either Keith Tkachuk or Bill Guerin.
Top Prospects: Matt Gilroy (8-29-37, plus-22 in 45 GP; Boston University-HE), Michael Del Zotto (13-50-63, minus-3 in 62 GP; Oshawa,London-OHL), Bobby Sanguinetti (6-36-42, minus-8 in 78 GP; Hartford-AHL), Michael Sauer (6-17-23, plus-29 in 64 GP; Hartford-AHL)
Michal Rozsival is a durable, puck-moving defenceman and while the Rangers power play struggled (ranking 29th in the league), it was probably due to others moreso than Rozsival. At the same time, Rozsival is also coming off a season in which he finished with a career-worst minus-7, so it somewhat limits the appeal of having him under contract for three more seasons.
Having Rozsival under contract is not even close to as onerous, however, as having Wade Redden signed through 2013-1014. Redden turns 32 this summer, but his game has been in decline for a couple of seasons, so it's scary to imagine what he might be like five years from now. To be fair, Redden isn't an outright terrible defenceman, but he's no longer an impact player and is most assuredly paid like one; the kind of decision that can hamstring a franchise.
Dan Girardi opened the season looking like a throwback to the early days of Redden's career, making good passes and playing sound positional defence, but he went through a real rough patch in the middle portion of the season. It was only his second full NHL season, so it's fair to allow Girardi more time to mature into a more prominent role.
Though Marc Staal didn't necessarily develop as much as hoped in his second season, but it's still fair to hope for the rangy blueliner to become a staple on a shutdown pairing since his size allows him to match up with the power forwards of the league (including his brothers, if need be).
Last season, the Rangers had an excruciatingly thin defence corps, and it's part of the reason that they had to keep sending out Redden and Dmitri Kalinin, even when they were faltering.
The first move to address the defence came when the Rangers inked Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy out of Boston University. Gilroy, who will be a 25-year-old rookie, needs to come in and make a difference.
The Rangers have a few other prospects that could challenge for spots, but a veteran may be needed. Barring any cap-saving moves in the meantime, the Rangers don't figure to have the budget for more than discount free agents, so the likes of Kent Huskins, Shane Hnidy or Jason Strudwick could be a cost-effective veteran presence.
Top Prospects: Matt Zaba (25-10-0, 2 SO, 2.33 GAA, .920 SVPCT; Hartford-AHL), Miika Wiikman (21-18-4, 2 SO, 2.70 GAA, .904 SVPCT)
For all their question marks, the Rangers at least have a strong backbone in goal. Henrik Lundqvist has played at least 70 games, winning 37 or more, for three straight seasons, numbers only put up by one other goalie in the entire league over that span (Miikka Kiprusoff). He can go through occasional bouts of inconsistency, but Lundqvist should be the least of the Rangers' worries.
Stephen Valiquette has performed well in a limited backup role over the past two seasons. At a reasonable price, it would be just fine to bring him back, but the Blueshirts can't invest too much in the backup when they expect the starter to play 70-plus games.
Matt Zaba and Miika Wiikman have had their moments in the AHL, but neither one is knocking down the door to take over the backup role just yet.
19th - John Moore, Peter Holland, Carter Ashton.
The Rangers have approximately $42.3-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, three defencemen, backup goaltender
What I said the Rangers needed last year: Three top nine forwards, three defencemen
Who did they add? Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund, Aaron Voros, Wade Redden, Lauri Korpikoski, Dan Fritsche
Scott Gomez, Nikolai Zherdev, Michal Rozsival.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca