Everyone inside and outside the organization should be able to appreciate both the quantum leap the Rangers were able to take this season and the notable distance they have come since the mandate to reset was established in February of 2018.
But the truth is that it is going to be much more challenging for the Blueshirts to get from here to the Canyon of Heroes than it was for the club to get from Lotteryland to Game 6 of the conference final. The distance from challenger to champion — the one that neither Henrik Lundqvist’s nor Eddie Giacomin’s teams could take — represents the largest divide in sports.
Of course the Blueshirts will benefit from their excellent playoff adventure in which they won five elimination games and pushed the mighty Lightning to six games. They learned what they were capable of accomplishing in the crucible while simultaneously getting an education on what more it would take to get to the promised land. Some might have even exceeded previously believed limits.
To a man, following exit interviews with president and GM Chris Drury, the Rangers talked of “unfinished business” on Monday in their final interactions with the press. They expressed the strong opinion that the team doesn’t necessarily need to add ingredients but instead can take that next step by applying the lessons learned this time around. That’s exactly what you’d expect from this group whose self-belief was a significant component in the club’s success.
But even though it seemed as if the Rangers were close when they held a 2-0 lead midway through Game 3 in Tampa Bay after having won the opening two contests of the series at the Garden, the longer the series evolved, the farther away the Cup became.
Because let’s face it, the Blueshirts were ultimately physically dominated by a Tampa Bay team that did not relent for so much as a single shift. Borrowing a precept of Freddie Shero’s almost a half a century old, the Lightning arrived on time and with malice. They hit with purpose. The Rangers could not win battles. The Rangers could not get to the inside. For the only time in the playoffs, the Rangers looked small.
And so as it was Drury’s responsibility last summer to add grit, sandpaper, mental and physical toughness and leadership pedigree to supplement the considerable talent that had been amassed under Jeff Gorton’s tenure as GM, it will now be on him to add size, bulk and a meaner edge up front.
It will be on Drury to construct a team that will be able to get to the net when the Rangers’ open-ice, rush game is eliminated. It will be on the GM to ensure that the portfolio up front is diversified so that the team can score different ways, not simply off neat backdoor plays and odd-man rushes through open spaces that occur fewer by the week as the playoffs advance.
Drury obviously will have to work within the constraints of the unforgiving salary cap and the various no-trade/no-move clauses contained in several of his players’ contracts. There is the issue of the second-line center to be addressed before the picture comes into focus.
Are the Rangers one kind of team if Ryan Strome returns, another if Andrew Copp is the second-line center and yet another if Filip Chytil gets a crack at a top-six role in the middle? Or do the Blueshirts need a more physically formidable second-line pivot via even free agency or the trade route? That’s what I believe.
But if there is a material change in the second line center’s DNA, Drury will have to measure the impact that would have on Artemi Panarin, who said that he will take what he learned going through this run and apply it to future playoff tests.
“For sure,” said Panarin, who for the most part was unable to be the same kind of influencer in the playoffs he has been during the regular season. “Tough situations make stronger people and soft situations make soft people.
“It depends on how you react. Things did not go in the playoffs how I want[ed], but thanks to God for the opportunity. I’m going to be better.”
The Rangers need their best players to be at their best at the most important time of the year. Mika Zibanejad continued to elevate his profile and his game through the first deep run of his career, but he did not record a five-on-five point over the final four games against Tampa Bay and posted only three points (1, 2) at even strength over the last nine matches.
There is reason to believe Zibanejad will prosper from this experience — all of them, really — but he might need a more physical presence on his right side that can clear out some space for the center and work the walls and corners. That’s where Sammy Blais could play an important role next year.
There was nothing soft at all about the Rangers. But they need to add more physical, harder-edged forwards into the mix to further diversify the team’s look. They need to add ingredients that will allow the club to become more of a puck-possession team. Perhaps Will Cuylle will be ready to contribute.
The Rangers have come miles over the last year. They still have miles to go.