The heartbreak is subsiding. The excitement is returning.
This was a tremendous season for the Rangers. They returned to the NHL playoffs and then took them by storm, winning series over the Penguins and Hurricanes in comeback fashion before falling just short of an Eastern Conference title against the two-time reigning champion Lightning.
Yes, it stings to know the Rangers were thisclose to taking out the Bolts after a 2-0 series lead. But the organization proved it is ready to contend again. Which brings us to the offseason, one of the team’s biggest in a long time. They have the goaltender — Igor Shesterkin — to win it all. And stars Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are locked in. But what else do they need?
Here is a rundown of what to expect:
Re-signing Andrew Copp. He proved he is a player that needs to be kept around. Copp does a little bit of everything — a complete player who kills penalties and meshed well with Artemi Panarin while contributing some key scoring at times. The Rangers dealt what ended up being a first-round pick (three picks overall) and highly-touted prospect Morgan Barron to Winnipeg for Copp. So it seems likely they will prioritize re-signing him. Copp is likely looking at a roughly $5 million AAV over four, five or six years. That should make financial sense for the Blueshirts.
Letting Ryan Strome walk. A departure seems likely, especially after that missed empty net shot in Game 5. Strome figures to cash in elsewhere after Panarin elevated his game upon his arrival. The Rangers are not going to be able to pay Copp and Strome. So it stands to reason they will let Strome go given how much they have invested in Copp. The move may look good, too, as Strome will likely be a 35-point-per-year player with his new team. He was more of a third-liner playing on the second line anyway.
What to do with Frank Vatrano? The underrated Vatrano became a key player down the stretch. The Rangers allowed him to shine in a first-line role after he did not get the opportunity with the Panthers. Vatrano is the type of shoot-first player the Rangers have lacked for what feels like decades. Just the presence of his wrist shot loosens defenses for Kreider and Zibanejad. It will be hard to re-sign Vatrano unless his market isn’t there (or Copp and Strome both walk), but Drury should try.
And Kappo Kakko? Who knows what will happen after his controversial benching in Game 6 against the Lightning. Kakko will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Rangers have said they have him in their long-term plans, but it’s hard to completely buy it given the scratch. And while Kakko said the right things on baggie day, how Gallant handled the lineup change may have turned him off. One thing is certain: If Kakko gets an offer sheet worth signing from another team, and he signs it, his Rangers career is almost assuredly over given the team’s cap situation. The Rangers should have little issue resigning Sammy Blais, the other RFA.
Other potential moves. The Rangers will need a new backup goalie with Alexander Georgiev on the way out. A veteran would make sense. … Tyler Motte would be a big re-sign if he could be had for a low-salary, longer-term deal like Barclay Goodrow received last year. … Vitali Kravstov will return from Russia after his relationship with the front office was repaired. He had a big year in the KHL and can be a significant contributor.
The real question, though: Can the Rangers accomplish everything they need to take the next step, build on this run and get to the Stanley Cup finals? It’s going to take some maneuvering and players may need to make sacrifices to stay. But if there is one off-ice takeaway the Rangers should have from their series loss to the Lightning, it is the cap is merely a suggestion, not a rule. There are ways to make it all work.