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Core Values: Rangers lean on Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Henrik Lundqvist is the key player the Rangers will lean most on. (USATSI)
Henrik Lundqvist is the key player the Rangers will lean most on. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Rumor mill | Trade Tracker | 2014-15 preseason odds

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players that consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players that could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

Close doesn't cut it in professional sports. That's what the New York Rangers painfully learned over the summer. The team had been built in many ways specifically for that run. With the cap constrictions brought forth by expensive extensions for goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Dan Girardi, change was going to come for the 2014-15 season and it has.

The Rangers lost several key players from their roster, including long-term investment Brad Richards, who was bought out. The team also lost top-four defenseman Anton Stralman in free agency.

That makes things a little more difficult for a Rangers club that has a lot of contracts expiring at the end of next season. What they do have, however, is a core group of players the team should be able to expect to gradually build around.

That all starts with Lundqvist, who signed a seven-year, $59.5 million deal that comes with an $8.5 million annual cap hit. He's the backbone of the team and they're paying him to be it. The rest is a little bit harder to define, but the Rangers still have a good portion of the group intact that will keep them among the top teams in the Eastern Conference next season and beyond.

Core Values: New York Rangers

Players (age, remaining term on contract): G Henrik Lundqvist (32, 7 years), D Ryan McDonagh (25, 6 years), F Rick Nash (30, 4 years), D Dan Girardi (30, 6 years), C Derek Stepan (24, 1 year), C Derick Brassard (26, 5 years), D Marc Staal (27, 1 year)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $38,550,000 (55.8% of salary cap consumed by seven players)

Average age: 27.7

Total point production in 2013-14: 83 goals, 139 assists, 222 points (38% of team's point production)

New York Rangers Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:

*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. The darker the shade, the better the possession numbers.

About the Core

Henrik Lundqvist: Entering his 10th season with the Rangers, Lundqvist has been one of the league's finest netminders over the course of his career. He has been a Vezina Trophy finalist five times and won the award in 2011-12. His career save percentage sits at .920, which was the same mark he put up last season at 31 years old. It is said that goaltenders decline into their 30s. That's not always the case, but it sure seems to happen a lot. The man known as King Henrik will be playing under his new contract for the next seven years, accounting for $8.5 million against the salary cap. There's little doubt Lundqvist is this team's most important and probably its best player. If he can delay the career decline so many goalies face at this stage of their careers, he will help maintain his value at least for a portion of the contract. That might be good enough to help the team maintain contender status for a few more years. How he was acquired: 2000 NHL Entry Draft, seventh round, 205th overall

Rick Nash: In his two seasons on Broadway, Nash has endured a bit of a roller coaster ride. Brought in to be the star forward, Nash has fallen just short of expectations. He still has 47 goals and 81 points in 109 games with the Blueshirts, which isn't too shabby. But they'll need more out of him going forward. With four years left on his deal and the Rangers having lost a number of strong free agents, he needs to be at the top of his game for the Rangers to remain one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. Additionally, Nash has to find his way in the playoffs after two somewhat disappointing postseasons for the Rangers. Nash is a supreme talent, even with his production struggles. He still possesses that ability to break games open and the Rangers will need him to do it for the duration of his time in New York. How he was acquired: Traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets with Steven Delisle and a third-round pick for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick on July 23, 2012

Ryan McDonagh is a huge part of the Rangers' present and future. (USATSI)
Ryan McDonagh is a huge part of the Rangers' present and future. (USATSI)

Ryan McDonagh: Over a brief period of time, less than four full seasons in the NHL, McDonagh has grown into an exceptional defenseman (his usage circle is hiding behind Girardi's in the graph above). With excellent skating ability and physical strength, McDonagh has proven to be very strong defensively. As he's grown in his career, McDonagh has also added more offense to his game. He put up 14 goals and 43 points last season while leading all Rangers players by averaging nearly 25 minutes a night. From the power play to the penalty kill, McDonagh is used in all high-leverage situations for the Rangers and appears only to be getting better. The most incredible part is that McDonagh comes with extreme value. At just a $4.7 million cap hit, the Rangers are getting serious bang for their buck out of this 25-year-old whose best days may yet be ahead of him. How he was acquired: Traded from the Montreal Canadiens with Chris Higgins and Pavel Valentenko for Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto on June 30, 2009

Dan Girardi: I'm not sure that I would have considered Girardi for the core group the Rangers want to build around, but the long-term extension he signed last season suggests the organization does. Girardi is a top-four defenseman that plays a lot of tough minutes and is often paired with McDonagh. But he'll make more per year than McDonagh and Girardi's extension indirectly ended up costing the team a very good shutdown defender in Anton Stralman. To focus on the positive, however, Girardi is a home-grown talent and the Rangers are the only club he has ever known since signing as an undrafted free agent. He finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting two years ago and has been extremely durable, never missing more than two games per season. He is probably the Rangers' most physical defenseman and blocks a ton of shots. It's not really a surprise that the Rangers wanted to hang on to him, but the cap management from the Rangers is what is making the long-term stability of this core a bit less secure. How he was acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent on July 1, 2006

Derek Stepan: With just one year remaining on his deal before becoming a restricted free agent for the second time, the Rangers have to focus on getting their No. 1 center under a long-term contract. Stepan is coming off a career year in which he had 40 assists and 57 points. He also averaged 0.91 points per game during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. At just 24 years old, Stepan is still growing into his game a bit, but in four years in the NHL, he has never had fewer than 44 points (in 2012-13) and could have been even more productive last year if not for an abnormally low shooting percentage of 8.5 on a career-high 199 shots. After the Rangers just handed Derick Brassard a five-year extension worth $25 million, Stepan should easily command more term and a higher annual average. It will be worth paying Stepan to take up some of his UFA years and remain secure at the No. 1 center position for multiple years. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 51st overall

Derick Brassard: The Rangers wanted to stay strong down the middle and should be after re-signing Brassard earlier this week to a five-year, $25 million deal. It was a big payday for Brassard, who has never topped 50 points in his career, and it was quite the long-term commitment as well. How this meshes with the Rangers' cap management remains to be seen, but it could further hinder future negotiations with the many free agents playing on expiring deals next season. That said, Brassard was a key cog for the Rangers throughout the season and playoffs last year. He was part of the Rangers' most effective line for much of the season, posted a career-high 18 goals and registered 45 points. At 26 years old, the Rangers have a seasoned NHL veteran who is good at both ends of the ice and makes for a solid, but not overwhelming one-two punch down the middle. There's a chance Brassard continues his NHL maturation and makes a bigger impact on the Rangers over the course of his deal, but it's risk-filled considering who else has to be re-signed. How he was acquired: Traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets with Derek Dorsett, John Mooreand a sixth-round pick for Marian Gaborik, Blake Parlett and Steven Delisle.

Marc Staal: With just one season left on his deal before becoming a restricted free agent, the Rangers may want to consider how they'll be able to keep Staal long term without rocking the boat too much underneath the salary cap. Staal's career was derailed by a serious concussion and then a serious eye injury, but he showed few ill effects since his return. His point production has waned a bit, especially last season when he managed just 14 points in 72 games. He's been a top-four defenseman for the team and was extremely strong defensively last season. He posted a 3.5 relative Corsi percentage despite playing some tough minutes. Without Anton Stralman, it will be interesting to see how Staal adjusts. It will also be interesting to see how he is handled by the Rangers. They really can't afford to let him walk after losing Stralman, but they also have a lot of other players to get under new deals next season. Where Staal falls in the pecking order will be interesting. He should be pretty high, though, as he helps give the Rangers a stronger top four. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 12th overall

Who's next in line

High hopes are tied to Chris Kreider and his continued development. (USATSI)
High hopes are tied to Chris Kreider and his continued development. (USATSI)

The cap crunch the Rangers could experience after next season is going to make things interesting for the future of this core group of players. It's hard to see any of them not being with the team for multiple years in the future, but there is a second tier of players that could figure prominently for this team over the next several years.

Chris Kreider is the club's most promising youngster. His 37 points in 66 games last season could be a sign of things to come from the 23-year-old who was just signed to a two-year extension. Should he boost his production over the next two seasons, he'll be an expensive player to keep, but his blinding speed and scoring ability make the Rangers a bigger threat overall.

Additionally, Mats Zuccarello led the team in scoring last season. The 26-year-old Norwegian only managed to get a one-year deal as a restricted free agent this year. With the team not yet making a long-term commitment to him, it didn't seem prudent to include him as a core player at this point. There's little doubt he could be soon after the season he just had.

These appear to be the two players with the best chance to make a long-term impact for the organization, next to the guys in the established core. Others like Carl Hagelin and perhaps former top-pick J.T. Miller could be included down the line as well.

Overview

The Rangers have an interesting mix in the core. Led by Lundqvist, the Rangers have one of the key pieces any team would need in an excellent goaltender. It's the rest of the group that starts to show that the Rangers, particularly in comparison to the team they just lost the Stanley Cup to, may not have a lot at the top end of their lineup.

The most notable absence from this list is Martin St. Louis, who will absolutely help the Rangers next season. But that's also the last year he is under contract, which means his future with the club is a bit less certain. Not knowing how he figures into the long-term plans for the Rangers, it didn't seem right to include him with a group that either came up through the organization or is already locked up to a long-term contract. St. Louis will be an important piece next season, but beyond that remains to be seen.

The way this core looks also is altered by what's happened this offseason. The team had to buy out Richards and lost Stralman in free agency. That's two key, top-of-the-lineup contributors gone. Add them to the losses of depth help in the form of Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle and the Rangers definitely have a lot of question marks heading into next season and beyond.

The long-term health of this organization is still up in the air. With guys like Stepan, Staal, Hagelin and Zuccarello all due for new deals after next season, this team could look even more different after next season.

Having gotten so close to the Stanley Cup last year and having to spend big to keep star players like Lundqvist in town, it's hard to see what's next for the Rangers. They're obviously still a competitive team with great potential, but how long that lasts rests in their ability to maneuver new contracts underneath the cap, which should continually grow (and that should help a bit at least).

The future is a bit cloudy, but next year, the team is going to still have a chance to do some things thanks to an established group of veteran players and some cheap offseason additions. The 2014-15 campaign is going to be a huge one for the Rangers on and off the ice.

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