Coming as close as the New York Rangers did to the Stanley Cup last year makes this offseason rather difficult for a club that seemed full of promise in 2013-14. Having lost key players from last year either by necessity or failure in negotiation, the 2014-15 Rangers won't look like the version that fell three wins shy of hockey's ultimate prize.
Though it will look different, the Rangers could still be a threat in the East, but it's what the longer-term future holds for this organization that remains incredibly unclear and that puts a lot of pressure on an upcoming season with a lot of heavy lifting for management.
This offseason hasn't been incredibly kind to the Rangers with so many departures. Over the last week, things have briefly been looking up as the team got deals done with some of their restricted free agents in what is proving to be the most crucial week of the summer.
So far, Glen Sather has re-signed Mats Zuccarello, last year's leading scorer, and Chris Kreider, one of the club's brightest young players. Derick Brassard, one of the club's leading offensive threats in the playoffs, remains unsigned and is set for an arbitration hearing on Monday, though the two sides are still negotiating.
Zuccarello signed a one-year deal after which he will be eligible to become a restricted free agent. Kreider re-upped for two years and will remain a restricted free agent by the time that contract expires. Brassard is to-be-determined, but seeks a healthy raise.
Not being able to work out a longer-term deal with Zuccarello may have been disappointing, but the club did get a reasonable two-year deal done with Kreider. They also avoided arbitration in both instances, which is usually a good thing.
Brassard, who is seeking a raise from his $3.2 million annual average on his last deal, may end up being the most delicate of the three negotiations as the Rangers have to temper a long-term commitment with all the work they are going to have to do with contracts over the next year.
According to CapGeek.com, the Rangers currently have about $6.3 million in cap space for next season. Brassard and restricted free-agent defenseman John Moore are all the club has left to re-sign to complete their 2014-15 roster. So things look set for next season.
Even as the deals get done with the RFAs, the Rangers have still left more work to be done in a relatively short period of time. That's on top of what is already going to be a busy couple of seasons when it comes to locking down players with new deals.
There are no less than five key players that will be playing on the last year of their contracts in 2014-15. Three will become unrestricted free agents – Zuccarello, Martin St. Louis and Marc Staal – if the club doesn't reach an extension agreement before next July 1. Two are restricted free agents, but are likely due considerable raises on their next deals – Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin.
With the exception of St. Louis, that's four players that should be part of the long-term future of the team and guys that should be paid accordingly.
That's a lot of maneuvering, even with the rising salary cap. The Rangers have to find a way to retain those players, without severely crippling their ability to have a roster with some depth.
The club has already hitched its wagons to Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and Dan Girardi on long-term deals. Dan Boyle is under contract for two years, as are Kreider, Dominic Moore and new signee Matthew Lombardi. Tanner Glass and Kevin Klein have three and four years on their deals respectively, though how much support they give in depth roles on multi-year deals remains questionable.
The Rangers did bring in Lee Stempniak this year on an extremely affordable one-year contract as well, which could pay off in a big way at minimal risk. That could end up being one of their best moves this offseason.
Where the Rangers are setting themselves up for further concern in terms of building sustainable depth for the roster is in their lack of an established prospect system.
The club did not have a first-round pick in the last two drafts. They don't have a first-round pick in next year's draft. The prospect system is highlighted by J.T. Miller, who will also be a restricted free agent after next season and likely a full-time NHLer next year, but beyond that there is plenty of uncertainty in terms of timeline for arrival for many others. The lack of first-rounders hasn't allowed the Rangers to establish a healthy enough farm system to replenish departures to the NHL roster.
That showed up in the offseason moves this year to sign players like Mike Kostka, Matt Hunwick and Chris Mueller to one year deals to fill out depth that other organizations may have been able to fill internally. Filling holes with players that have teetered between the minors and the NHL over their careers is not something the team would want to make a habit of.
That puts more pressure on the club to get those four key players on expiring deals under new, solid contracts because there isn't going to be much to replace them internally if they move on. And that starts the whole process over again by making many trades and overpaying in free agency and maybe not getting as close to the Cup as they did last season anytime soon.
That is, unless they can manage to pull something big off next season. The core of the roster may be light a few players from last year, but there's still something there to push in the weakened Eastern Conference. If the Rangers do well enough over the course of the year, perhaps they are able to be players on the trade market to fill whatever gaps may remain to make another Cup run.
If it goes the other way, though, the team may need to seriously look at its roster and see what the long-term vision is for this team. As of right now, it seems more like a year-by-year situation where anything can happen.
Looking back at all the moves the Rangers made last season, trading Ryan Callahan for St. Louis, extending Lundqvist and Girardi, going on a deep run in the playoffs and then going through this summer of turnover, one could say last season was a busy one. But even considering all that, the hardest work lies ahead in terms of securing a brighter long-term future. The good news is that the Rangers have nearly a full year to figure it all out. They'll probably need every bit of it.