The New York Rangers can look back on the Stanley Cup Final and see the three overtime games and the hit posts and near misses and wonder what could have been. There is a due mourning period when a team comes as close to winning the Stanley Cup as the Rangers did by making the final, but it can't last long.
The Rangers can view the three wins shy they fell short of the Stanley Cup and take it as the disappointment that it is, but can also view it as a signal that they aren't terribly far away from being able to change the result. It won't come without some serious work on the lineup, however, as next year's Rangers are not going to look like this year's Rangers, at least not in total.
General manager Glen Sather will look at his team and has to figure out how he can restructure a lineup with $63 million committed to 13 players, with a salary cap expected to end up in the $71 million range next season. Some choices will be more obvious than others, but there is much work to be done in the coming weeks.
So where does Sather go from here?
He was rewarded for his decision not to buy out Brad Richards last season. The veteran forward enjoyed a bounce-back from last year's disastrous postseason, notching 51 points including 20 goals in the regular season. He also was a contributor in the playoffs with 12 points in 25 games, while also assuming the primary leadership role on the team in the wake of Sather trading team captain Ryan Callahan. Unfortunately for the Rangers and Richards, the game that ended their Stanley Cup dreams assuredly ends Richards' time in New York.
The decision was essentially made well before the playoffs ever started when the Rangers re-signed defenseman Dan Girardi and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to large multi-year deals. Though Richards was better this year, his contract value surpasses his effectiveness for the team. The Rangers have to buy out the remaining six years on his deal, with a restrictive $6.67 million annual cap hit. That is Step 1.
Sather's offseason work also will require him to re-sign top restricted free agents in Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Chris Kreider. All are due raises, with Zuccarello and Kreider possibly deserving big money compared to their previous deals. John Moore is also a restricted free agent, but his due raise likely won't take up as much space as the others.
Zuccarello was the team's leading scorer before Martin St. Louis arrived last season, while Kreider is an integral part of the Rangers' future and should be paid as such. Neither should get bank-breaking salaries, but they will be significant in their differences from their most recent contracts.
As important as getting those players re-signed is, Sather's top priority after buying out Richards should be trying to find a way to prevent Anton Stralman from reaching unrestricted free agency on July 1. Stralman is due a substantial new contract after a strong season in the team's top four on the blue line and an excellent postseason performance.
Stralman is an interesting case, as he is not a big point producer from the back end. His defensive play, however, is undeniably extremely important to the Rangers and losing him would likely lead to a significant downgrade at his position.
Stralman carried a plus-6 relative Corsi (total even-strength shot attempts while player was on the ice relative to those when he was off) during the regular season, which is rather impressive for a defenseman who gets primarily tough defensive assignments. That number indicates that the Rangers were a better possession team with Stralman on the ice. He, himself carried a 56.5 percent Corsi for percentage. That's the kind of guy you want on your team.
The question becomes how much is it going to cost to keep him. He was the fourth-most utilized defenseman on the team, but made the team better when he was on the ice. We don't know how much value teams are going to put on his advanced metrics, but you better believe his agent will be citing them when going to the negotiating table (anything to get an edge).
Stralman will also be negotiating from a position of strength. He is now only 16 days away from hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent, where he should find no shortage of suitors. That means the Rangers are going to have to make a rather lucrative offer, perhaps a bit more than they'd like, to prevent him from getting there. That's going to be tough to swing, but they have to find a way if they want to remain a competitive team.
The Rangers also have Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore, all important pieces in their run to the Stanley Cup Final set to hit unrestricted free agency. It is hard to see the Rangers letting all three walk, but it seems unlikely that each of them stay.
Sather also has to make decisions with the future in mind. Marc Staal becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season, while Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin will be restricted free agents at the same time. So keeping things cost-effective in the short term is as important as it is in the long term.
There's no room to make a big splash in free agency this year and there are only a few prospects in the pipeline to make a push for roster spots next year. Ideally, they would have a few young guys to occupy spots with cap-friendly entry-level contracts. J.T. Miller may be the only one ready to do that, and he was oft-criticized by head coach Alain Vigneault this year.
Once Sather gives himself some wiggle room with the inevitable buyout of Richards, he'll have to get creative.
The Rangers also have to re-evaluate their core. Lundqvist and defenseman Ryan McDonagh cause no concern at all. Those are the anchors, but they need that top forward to be great. That should be Rick Nash, but his playoff struggles to score are very real. Part of it was undoubtedly bad luck, but three goals is not going to cut it. Five career goals in 41 career playoff games is concerning as well. Nash should be that No. 1 forward that the team can build around, but there is reason to question if he can be that for the Rangers.
The good news for Sather is that there are players in place who have the talent to build around. They'll have Martin St. Louis for a full season next year, to help boost scoring. They'll have Stepan, Hagelin, Zuccarello and Kreider all with another year of pro development under their belts. They have an elite goaltender and top-end No. 1 defenseman.
The Rangers can't focus on the loss to the Kings as showing what they lacked. They really weren't all that far off from competing with the Kings. Some have advocated for the Rangers to get bigger and perhaps they should, but not at the expense of disrupting the skill they have on this team. A few changes here or there will help, but Sather has to do what he can to get his RFAs under reasonable deals, hopefully keep Stralman and then figure out where to go next.
The Rangers have a good team. They'll be different next year, but it's hard to see them falling very far from contention if they can make those smart cost-effective decisions over the next few weeks. It won't be an easy job for Sather, but he at least has a place to start.