No matter which way you cut it, the New York Rangers had a very successful 2013-14 season. They simply got beat by a better team in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, but they proved they can hang with the Western Conference elite.
Now, with such an unexpected success comes greater expectations for the next season.
How do the Rangers get back, and how can they actually take the next step and win the Stanley Cup in 2015?
General manager Glen Sather will have his most important offseason in his 15 years building the Rangers. He will have to retain the core of the team, without letting too many key figures walk in free agency. He will have to place the right players in the most important areas of need, without breaking the bank nor sacrificing the future.
What the Rangers need most to return to the elite of the NHL next season is simple: add size and scoring depth.
With the Rangers expected to exercise their last remaining compliance buyout on Brad Richards, the team will save $6.6 million in cap space. Other players expected to cash in elsewhere are Brian Boyle and Daniel Carcillo. Should this happen, Sather will have some payroll flexibility to add a couple more key pieces.
Also, there is the contract status of four key restricted free agents: Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and John Moore. All are due a big payday, and Sather would be wise to provide it to them.
Two unrestricted free agents Sather would be wise to re-sign are Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore. Both were key contributors to the Rangers’ playoff success, and both proved they can succeed in coach Alain Vigneault’s system, so long as they are cast in the correct roles.
Anton Stralman should be Sather’s No. 1 priority to re-sign. He is a perfect fit for the Rangers, and proved to be the team’s best all-around defenseman during the playoffs.
Then, there is the matter of upgrading the roster. The Rangers will need at least one elite center and at least one big-bodied defenseman or fourth-line forward. The most logical free agent target for the Rangers this summer is the Colorado Avalanche‘s Paul Stastny. However, he will come with a hefty cap hit.
Another possibility is a trade with the Avalanche for Ryan O’Reilly. O’Reilly would be a perfect fit for the Rangers, but would it come at the cost of a player like Derek Stepan, plus a top prospect such as Anthony DuClair?
Two lower-priced options at center are the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Dave Bolland and the St. Louis Blues’ Steve Ott. Ott brings the size the Rangers need, coupled with veteran leadership and intangibles made for a winning team.
As far as scoring, could the Rangers possibly bring back Marian Gaborik? With John Tortorella gone, he is the type of player that would flourish under Vigneault’s system. But following a Stanley Cup win with the Kings and such a monster playoffs, he will be due to earn much, much more than $7.5 million per year.
If the Rangers are looking for more scoring and leadership, they can pry away Jarome Iginla on a short-term deal. Iginla proved with the Boston Bruins last season he is far from done at age 36.
As far as defensemen go, the perfect fit for the Rangers would be Brooks Orpik. He has the size and big-game pedigree the Rangers need on the blue line.
So long as Sather upgrades the roster the right way and maintains the Rangers’ most important free agents, his team will return to the NHL’s elite in the 2014-15 season.
If he really plays his cards right, they may not only return to the Final, but win the Cup altogether.