Along with one of the best goalies in the world playing some of his best hockey in the playoffs, the Rangers were also an extremely deep, balanced team that had a very good defense and was capable of rolling out four lines that could chip in offensively.
While they did not have any one individual player who was carrying the load offensively, the Rangers' depth was perhaps their greatest weapon -- aside from the goalie -- against other teams.
One month into the offseason, and with the NHL's top free agents already mostly picked over, that depth seems to have taken a bit of a hit, especially up front.
Gone is Brad Richards, their big-money free agent acquisition from three years ago, by way of a compliance buyout. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Although his contract in New York quickly turned into an albatross, as many big-money free agent deals tend to do, and he seemed to take on a significantly reduced role at times in the playoffs, Richards was still a very useful player. His 85 points the past two seasons were 61st among all NHL forwards, while his 54 percent Corsi percentage was 51st. The Rangers needed to clear his contract off the books, but by doing so they're also losing second-line production on the ice.
Also gone is Benoit Pouliot, a major part of what turned out to be one of the best third lines in hockey. Even though he never quite lived up to what you might expect from a No. 4 overall pick in the draft, and even though he is prone to taking some bad offensive zone penalties, he draws even more and is still a guy who helps move the needle positively on the bottom six.
So far, the only additions from the outside to replace these losses have been Chris Mueller, who's spent most of the past three years playing in the American Hockey League, and Tanner Glass, a free agent from Pittsburgh who signed a three-year contract with a salary cap hit of $1.45 million despite being one of the worst offensive players in the NHL.
When looking at it strictly through the window of free agency, this is a pretty big loss for the Rangers. But they also have a way to turn this into a win. In a salary-capped league, free agency is also about finding value. Teams pay their top guys huge money and need to find cheap production to fill in around them, whether it be through their farm system or undervalued assets in free agency or trades that other teams allow to slip through the cracks.
When it comes to Pouliot, the Rangers may have executed this perfectly. When they signed him to a one-year, $1.3 million contract, he was an undervalued commodity on the open market as teams still viewed him as a disappointing top-five bust and guy who couldn't stop taking penalties. But there was still a ton of value to his game, and the Rangers were able to use that to their advantage and piece together one of the best third lines in the league for dirt cheap.
Once everybody else in the league caught on to how valuable of a player Pouliot can be in the right role, he was able to cash in on the open market and secure a five-year, $20 million contract from the Edmonton Oilers.. The Rangers got him for cheap, benefited from everybody else overlooking his positive attributes, and then said goodbye when it was time for another team to overpay for him.
If the Rangers choose to, there are still a few similar options in free agency they could pursue. David Booth, for example, seems like the type of player who is going to sign for a bargain price and become a useful third-liner for somebody.
But they also have some internal options that are knocking on the door of the NHL, including 21-year-old J.T. Miller and 22-year-old Jesper Fast, two of the top three point-per-game players for the Hartford Wolf Pack last season. If guys such as Miller and Fast are able to step into roles at the NHL level -- and the Rangers are probably going to need at least one of them to do so -- they would be a massive boost to the lineup. Not only because of the youth, speed and skill they would bring to the lineup, but also because they would be doing so on entry-level contracts. With Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw in Chicago, and Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli in Los Angeles, we've seen how important cheap young talent is in the modern-day NHL.
The other major change for the Rangers has been the loss of Anton Stralman, perhaps their best defenseman in the playoffs, and the signing of veteran Dan Boyle. Stralman has been another player who has quietly snuck under the radar, consistently outperformed expectations and has been a capable defenseman. Like Pouliot, last year's playoffs were an eye-opening experience for the rest of the league and he was able to land a big deal in free agency.
When it comes to Boyle, though, it's going to be interesting to see, at age 38, what he has left in the tank. He's definitely not the player he was several years ago, but he can still be a productive player and there is a track record of defensemen like him still producing into their late 30s.
According to the Hockey Reference database, there have been 12 defensemen who played in at least 75 games and recorded at least 30 points in their age-37 season. Here is what they did the following year.
|Player||Age 37 Games||Age 37 Goals||Age 37 Points||Age 38 Games||Age 38 Goals||Age 38 Points|
(*Lockout shortened season)
Of the nine players on that list who returned for their age-38 season, they averaged more than seven goals and 38 points, a slight decline from the previous year, but still solid numbers and what should probably be expected for Boyle.
The issue for the Rangers isn't necessarily going to be that Boyle can't replace Stralman. Obviously he can, especially offensively and perhaps even help improve what has been at times a struggling power-play unit. The issue is that given the struggles of Dan Girardi after signing his long-term deal, and especially in the playoffs, it might be worth asking if they should have maybe let him go and given some of that money to Stralman instead.
In the end, though, the Rangers are definitely going to be a different team next season. But they still play in a very winnable conference, have the best goalie in the world, and if they're willing to turn some of those roles over to guys like Miller and Fast and are fortunate enough to have them turn into useful NHL players, they may not be a worse team, even after a few significant losses in free agency.