Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hats Off to The Kings and Thank You New York Rangers

20 years ago today, Flag Day, 1994, the New York Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. Friday night's Game 5 of this year's final between the Rangers and LA Kings went past midnight on the East coast. That meant that when Alec Martinez scored the game and series clinching goal in double overtime, the Kings were carrying the Cup in celebration on Flag Day, 2014.

It ended a dream that Rangers fans have carried since that magical night 20 years ago when team captain Mark Messier hoisted the Cup in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd. It was the first time the Rangers have made it to the finals since that night two decades ago. For a team with only four Stanley Cup wins since in it's inception in 1926, you don't want to let opportunities slip through your fingers.

Unfortunately, the Rangers ran into a powerhouse in the Kings. While the Rangers, with the exception of Game 3, led or were tied for the majority of most of the games, it was the Kings who won four out of five. It was the LA's second title in the last three years.

People will talk about the blown two-goal leads the Rangers held in the first two games, but their opponent was a relentless one. The Kings used their size to slow down a speedy Rangers team, which wasn't shy on size either, but couldn't compare to the linebackers playing for the Kings.

The players and fans are hurting right now, but this was one helluva run. One that was not anticipated during the stretch run of the season. The "only" significant move the Rangers made at the trade deadline was sending captain Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning for their captain, Martin St. Louis. The acquisition of St. Louis was to send a jolt to the offense, but the (reportedly) 5'8" winger managed just a single goal in 19 games.

Then the playoffs started and things changed. The Rangers knew they had the goalie to win a Cup in Henrik Lundqvist, but the remainder of the roster had little Cup experience. In fact, St. Louis and Brad Richards, teammates on the 2004 Lightning team that captured the Cup, were the only Rangers players to previously play for a title.

But the Rangers showed plenty of grit and heart, especially after they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Their play over the remainder of the Penguins series was remarkable, especially considering the death of St. Louis' mother prior to Game 5. The support of his teammates and the fans seemed to help elevate St. Louis' play and in he, in turn, fired up his teammates.

The Rangers then exorcised some demons in defeating the Montreal Canadiens, a team they have always struggled with in the regular season, in the conference final. Then it was the two major markets playing for the greatest trophy in sports. Unfortunately, Rangers fans will have to hold on to that image of Messier, Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, and Adam Graves a little while longer. While there is encouragement that teams in recent years have gotten back to the finals more often - Kings (Cups in '12, '14), Blackhawks (Cups in '10, '13, conference finals '14), Bruins (Cup in '11, finals in '13) - the Rangers roster could quite different next season.

But in the meantime, thank you New York Rangers for a great ride!

And for a semi-dose of reality...
2014-2015 Rangers

One of the first players that will be looking for a new team next year will be Richards. The unofficial captain after the departure of Callahan, Richards played much better in Alain Vigneault's system than he did under John Tortorella, but he didn't play well in the finals. Richards entered the series with 12 points in 20 games, but only managed to pick up one assist against the Kings. But more than anything it's the absurd contract that Glen Sather signed him to prior to the 2011-2012 season that will cost him his Rangers career. The nine-year deal still has six years and $27MM remaining on it.

Richards will receive an amnesty buyout, which in his case will amount to roughly $18MM. The buyout will not count against the team's salary cap, which the league reduced from $70.2MM to $64.3MM as part of the last collective bargaining agreement. It will be the second and last buyout the Rangers will be allowed after they exercised their first buyout on defenseman Wade Redden last year.

The Rangers have a number of unrestricted free agents as well. Chief among them defenseman Anton Stralman, center Brian Boyle, and center Dominic Moore. Stralman was on the Rangers' second defensive pairing with Mark Stahl and earned $1.7MM this past season. He should be one of the Rangers top priorities this off-season.

Boyle and Moore are two of the players that are easier to replace, but both have been solid for the Rangers. Moore was one of the Rangers best forwards in the finale with this tenacious, gritty play. Boyle is an excellent faceoff man, penalty killer, and has a combo of size (6'7") and speed. But Boyle earned $1.7MM last year and the Rangers are likely to look for a cheaper alternative. Moore earned $1MM this season and would not likely earn much more than that if the Rangers retained him.

Benoit Pouliot showed a scoring touch at times, but after making $1.3MM, the Rangers will let him walk. Dan Carcillo is a question mark. He made $8.25MM this year and played reasonably well until he got physical with a linesman in the Montreal series and missed all of the finals. (He was eligible to play in Game 5.)

Among the restricted free agents (2013-2014 salaries in parenthesis) the Rangers will try to retain are forwards Derick Brassard ($3.2MM), Chris Kreider ($1.325MM), Mats Zuccarello ($1.15MM), and defenseman Justin Falk ($975K). Defenseman John Moore ($925K) would seem to be on the bubble.

Unless you've followed junior hockey or the Hartford Wolfpack, you may not be aware of Danny Kristo, another restricted free agent, who has yet to play in the NHL. Kristo had 43 points for the Wolfpack in 65 games this season. Drafted by the Canadiens in 2008, the Rangers acquired him last season for Christian Thomas.

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