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May 28, 2013 | 12:56pm ET
Rangers first to admit they underachieved
 A very promising season quickly evolved into a major disappointment in The Big Apple.

NEW YORK, NY -- Coming out of the second lockout in a decade, the New York Rangers faced immensely lofty Stanley Cup or bust expectations. Expectations that were placed upon the players by the media and players themselves on the heels of an Eastern Conference Final exit last year at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. With that in mind, it’s difficult to qualify this past season as a failure.

Rangers Head Coach John Tortorella certainly didn’t view it as one. “The surrounding feeling was that this was a disappointing season,” he expressed on break-up day. “I don’t buy it.”

It ended quickly when, in the first game of the second round series against the Boston Bruins, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron came down the ice like a bad moon rising to barrel through Mats Zuccarello and Anton Stralman to end the game in overtime. The Rangers never recovered.

The problems that faced the Rangers in that series were the same ones that plagued them all year.

From the onset of the season, the team struggled out of the gate. The team identity had changed over the course of the offseason, losing key depth forwards in Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko to free agency and homegrown depth guys Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov to trade. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist took a while to hit stride, and the offense continued down their negative correlation from the previous year's playoffs.

One of the biggest issues was the lack of adjustment from Tortorella.

The catechism of ‘Torts’ is simple: block shots, grind, stay in passing or shooting lanes, defend first and ask questions later. The team simply did not have the same make-up this season to effectively turn that formula into a winning one.

While the team meandered along, sliding in and out of a playoff spot, the stark lack of depth on the roster was startling. When Rick Nash or Marian Gaborik weren’t scoring – and Gaborik certainly didn’t do a lot of it this past season – the team usually wasn’t winning.

Guys like Brian Boyle, who are usually relied on to play solid bottom-six minutes, while contributing something offensively, were absent for most of the season. In fact, through the first two months of the season, it seemed as though the bottom six would never score.

“I sucked this year,” Boyle lamented at the end of the season. “It was bad. I let myself down and my teammates down... I wasn’t in good enough shape.”

Lack of conditioning, a vital aspect of a Tortorella coached hockey team - and honestly, pretty much every other hockey team - was a common theme with the Rangers on break-up day, despite Tortorella lobbying all season that it wasn’t the case.

Brad Richards, an obvious candidate for an amnesty buy-out this offseason noted a lack of conditioning as a big reason for the meager amount of success he saw on the ice.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel normal all season,” Richards said. He noted that it wasn’t just camp, it was the uncertainty surrounding the start of the season that killed his routine. Richards has always been a very routine-oriented player.

Richards went from being penciled in as the top-line center, to a healthy scratch in back-to-back elimination games.

“It was not a fun time. No other way to put it,” he said.

Tortorella, who went on a two-minute diatribe after the Rangers game four victory defending Richards, invited the assembled media to kiss his ass if they didn’t believe Tortorella loved Richards. The two have had a bond since their days in sunny Tampa Bay.

“If I know [Richards], this has not been an easy thing for him,” he said. He was noncommittal about roster moves when asked about what may happen to Richards in the offseason.

The dollars owed to Richards mean very little for anyone involved in the decision, other than James Dolan, the owner of the team who would swallow $24 million over the next 14 years. The rest of the team is essentially playing with Monopoly money. Perhaps it’s just a drop in the bucket of the Cablevision empire, but there’s not a soul in the world that would be happy to swallow that kind of money, especially with the pricy renovations to Madison Square Garden nearing completion.

From most to least likely, there are three main reasons the Rangers may explore a buyout this summer.

The first is for simple salary cap reasons. The Rangers save approximately $6.66 million in space with Richards off the books. That money may be well spent elsewhere on bringing in another big name player or bolstering their depth.

The second is the fear that Richards may actually be done as a hockey player and would not contribute anything positive to the roster next season. With the top two center positions set in stone with Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard, Richards is likely nothing more than a very pricy third line center.

Finally, and although very unlikely, the organization may choose to part ways with the forward for fear of injury. If Richards suffered a serious injury, they would not be allowed to exercise their compliance buyout, and be stuck with him. It seems overly cautious, but injuries are uncertain.

Richards, of course, fully plans on staying.

“I signed here to be a Ranger for a lot longer than a year and a half,” he explicated, though acknowledging that some things are out of his control.

Richards served as an alternate captain the past two seasons, and his Captain Ryan Callahan believes he will bounce back. He admitted it was hard to watch Richards struggle.

“It’s hard not only as a teammate but a friend to see him going through that,” Callahan said.

It of course was not all negative offensively for the squad.

In his first year as a Ranger, the game-by-game score sheets were teeming with third period goals from Nash. That well dried up suddenly and abrasively in the playoffs however, as he managed to find the back of the net just one. He emphasized a lack of consistently in his first year on Broadway. He did add however that he loved his first year with the organization.

“I had one of the most fun seasons of my career here, I love being a Ranger,” he said.

The deadline acquisition of Brassard, a cast-off from Columbus and former teammate of Nash’s will be remembered quite fondly by Ranger fans in the future. Brassard enjoyed zounds of success in the postseason, showing everyone why he was a top-10 draft pick.

“I felt like in Columbus, the passion and emotion in my game was gone,” he told the assembled reporters on breakup day. “I am just really excited to be here.”

Brassard finished the playoffs with 12 points in 12 games to lead the team offensively. He also credited Stepan, who despite being younger than him, taught him a lot about how to play the game.

Stepan looked like the number one center that Rangers have spent a lot of time and money looking for over the past five years.

Despite losing the series in five games, Stepan had a positive CORSI in every game except the first against the Bruins, and was a plus 15 in a losing effort in game three, where the Rangers were outshot by a final count of 34-24. While Stepan only accounted for five points in the 12 games, he did everything else right and was a constant facilitator on the ice.

Stepan joins three other crucial members of the New York Rangers young core this offseason as a restricted free agent. Along with Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin, Stepan will see a significant raise from his entry level deal.

All three were all smiles about the negotiations and emphasized a love of New York as they emptied their lockers.

“I love it here... you get treated so well here,” Hagelin mentioned.

McDonagh was singing the same tune, praising the team and management, as was Stepan.

“I want to stay here and end my career here,” Stepan said.

There are two different tactics to the extensions the players will receive this summer. Hagelin likely falls into the first category, and will take a band-aid contract of likely two years, and no more than three at the lowest dollar amount. For Stepan and McDonagh though, the questions is not if, but when do the Rangers dole out big extensions.

The Rangers need to avoid the mistake made in Montreal with P.K. Subban. Subban will be swimming in cash soon after he signed a bridge contract.

The Rangers would be smart to consider long-term deals of the 6-year variety for McDonagh and Stepan to put their contracts out of sight and out of mind so attention can be turned to extending goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

The trio was mum on demands, citing the playoff exit as being too fresh in their minds to consider contract talks.

McDonagh is a mainstay on the defense corps that Director of Scouting Gordie Clark, along with Glen Sather, has built and the unit should be set heading into next season with the exception of maybe Michael Del Zotto.

Del Zotto’s struggles have been well-documented so far in his career, but he provided a noticeable spark some games. However, with the emergence of John Moore, and the expected full recovery of Marc Staal, Del Zotto may have played his last game as a New York Ranger.

He opted to forgo speaking with the media on breakup day.

Trading the young defenseman hinges strongly on the health of Staal. If Staal comes back healthy, the Rangers have five solid defensemen penciled in with Girardi, Staal, McDonagh, Stralman and Moore. This leaves a spot for a rookie like Dylan McIlrath - or the “Undertaker” as he is both affectionately and unaffectionately known - and a veteran like a possibly returning Steve Eminger to compete for.

Del Zotto appears to be the odd man out.

The Rangers can go two ways with a trade of Del Zotto. The first could be in a package for a defensive upgrade like Keith Yandle from Phoenix. The second could be for another top offensive talent like Thomas Vanek - although fitting that contract under the cap would likely be contingent on Richards not being with the team next year.

There are a few other interesting options to be considered with Del Zotto for an offensive upgrade or depth as well. A player like Sam Gagner in Edmonton, who also has one-year left on his deal could be traded to Del Zotto. Sather will look at all options with his young defenseman this summer.

The biggest priority for the team should be to find a way to help the powerplay. That may mean a change in the staff or a change in player-personnel. Assistant Coach Mike Sullivan who serves a key component on the tactical end of the powerplay may not be back behind the bench whether it’s to pursue another job or to be simply let go be the organization.

The powerplay struggled this season for a few key reasons. The first, as was with the offense, with the lack of strong breakout plays, which haunted the Rangers all year. Their speed and puck carrying through the neutral zone was inefficient at times throughout the season. Often the puck was dumped without a player chasing it down, which defeats the entire purpose of dumping the puck.

Secondly, was the lack of movement and reliance on point shots that simply don’t exist. If the team lacks a big-time shot from the point, the obvious thing to do would be the work the puck in close to the net and set up the play from the half boards. The Rangers did not do that at all. A glaring example was a 6-on-5 the Rangers ran at the end of game three. The entire middle of the ice was wide open, with all six players on the wings. With time running out on their season, they didn’t think to put one player in scoring position. The stark lack of quick movement killed the Rangers and made their powerplay defendable by a peewee team willing to stand in a shooting or passing lane. The lack of open looks was baffling to nobody but the team.

“I think it took on a life of its own,” Tortorella said about the powerplay during his closing remarks for the season. He added that it became as much about coaching player confidence as it was about strategy.

If fans had their way, Tortorella wouldn’t get another chance to coach the powerplay next year, as he would’ve been handed a pink slip already.

If Isiah Thomas was allowed to be continuously involved with the Knicks, I would imagine John Tortorella, who has lined the pockets of the Dolans with playoff revenue will certainly be invited back to the party next year.

Tortorella’s inability to adjust his roster was a problem this year, but I wouldn’t expect the same mistake to be made twice. He and Sather will likely add grit and players with “balls as big as the building,” as Tortorella has put it.

It would be a shock to see anyone opening camp on the ice as the head coach other than Tortorella. That being said, his leash is likely to be significantly shorter. An abysmal start would be enough for the coach to lose his job.

The core is here, and the Rangers have their priorities. The season was quantified as a failure by a despondent Lundqvist, who expressed significant amounts of frustration. Unfortunately for Lundqvist, most of his teammates and coaches took a different attitude, and hope to learn from a season that they viewed positively. Callahan, one of the longest tenured players on the team along with Lundqvist took a similar approach to the end of the year as Lundqvist.

“The goal was to win a Stanley Cup... we underachieved,” he stated.

He added that he hopes a lot of the young guys on the team will learn from the experience of big-time, tense games.

“It’s a waste of a season if you don’t learn from it.”

The New York Rangers need to hope that this time, the right lessons were learned.

Patrick Kearns is a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the New York Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
 

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