Coach Gerard Gallant “had a terrific season,” according to Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury, who spoke to reporters Wednesday on a season-ending conference call.
“First and foremost, I couldn’t be proud of what our players and coaches accomplished this season,” Drury said. “Obviously, we’re disappointed, we’re not playing right now in the [Stanley Cup] Finals. We want to build on this experience as an organization and find ways to still be playing hockey.”
Gallant, who Drury hired last summer to replace the fired David Quinn, led the Rangers to a 52-win, 110-point regular season, and got them to the Eastern Conference Final, where they eventually ran out of gas and lost to the two -time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
“At different times, you’ve got to make different decisions, and push different buttons, and I thought he did a great job all year long with that,” Drury said of Gallant, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year.
The season ended Saturday with a 2-1 loss to the Lightning in Tampa, and Gallant surprised many when he decided to scratch young forward Kaapo Kakko, a move Drury said he supported.
“Kakko’s an all-world player, he’s a young player in this league, still evolving,” Drury said. “He and I had a real good discussion before he left yesterday. There’s obviously a lot of belief in me and the staff, of what his future holds, and I know he’s excited for a good offseason and to come back next year and be ready. . . As I’ve said before, it’s [Gallant’s] lineup card and I support and trust the decisions he makes. . . and that’s a decision he made.”
Drury, himself just over a year on the job, is facing another busy offseason as he tries to figure out how to get the Rangers to take another step toward winning the Stanley Cup next season. His biggest decision this summer will be figuring out who should be the No. 2 center, behind Mika Zibanejad and playing next to Artemi Panarin.
Given the Rangers’ position regarding the salary cap — they will be tight against it after signing Zibanejad and Adam Fox to big-money contract extensions that kick in next season — the two in-house options for No. 2 center appear to be Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp. It’s highly unlikely Drury will be able to bring both players back, so he’ll have to choose one.
Of Copp, one of the trade-deadline acquisitions Drury made, Drury said his ability to play wing or center is “a good thing to have for any lineup.” Of Strome, who made it clear on breakup day Monday that he’d love to come back, he said, “Ryan’s a terrific person and a terrific player, and he’s definitely making a home here. And we’re excited that he wants to be here. And we think the world of him, both on and off the ice.
Drury said he was still waiting to find out whether Strome will need surgery to repair a pelvic injury that bothered him the second half of the season and caused him to leave Saturday’s game after two periods.
Drury also had nice things to say about 22-year-old forward Vitali Kravtsov, who agreed to a one-year, $875,000 contract over the weekend after going back home to Russia to play last season when the Rangers sent him to the minor leagues after training camp.
“We’re excited to have him back, and I don’t think we’ve ever wavered from our stance of he’s an all-world talent,” he said. “He does a lot of things on the ice that a lot of people can’t. He’s got size [6-2, 193]and his hockey sense is through the roof, as is his skill.”