By Sean Hartnett
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As franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist enters the twilight of his career, there's going to be increased yearly pressure on the Rangers to deliver him a Stanley Cup-worthy cast of teammates.
It would be a shame if Lundqvist finishes his decorated career without a parade down the Canyon of Heroes and to see him hoist Lord Stanley above his head among a sea of euphoric fans.
Lundqvist posted a 2.25 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 12 playoff games before the Blueshirts were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators in six games in the second round. While there doesn't seem to be any decline in the 35-year-old netminder's play, the sensational Swede isn't going to be around forever.
It's going to be crucial for general manager Jeff Gorton to make the right calls this offseason to position the Rangers for a deeper playoff run next spring.
Here's a five-point plan on how to make that happen:
1. GO BIG AFTER A TOP RIGHT-HANDED DEFENSEMAN
Dan Girardi has long served as a minutes-eating shutdown man, but the 33-year-old has been on a steady decline in recent seasons. Though he performed admirably in the opening round against the Montreal Canadiens, the slow-skating alternate captain was exposed by the speedy Senators in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The modern NHL is built on fast legs, tape-to-tape puck movement and high-speed forechecking. Asking an aging, possession-deficient Girardi to perform 22-minute playoff workloads isn't going to get the Rangers over the hump and back into the conference finals.
Rather than sticking with Girardi, the Rangers are going to need to acquire a right-sided partner who can elevate captain Ryan McDonagh's game. Girardi is simply no longer cut out for first-pairing minutes as he forces McDonagh to spend too much time putting out fires in the defensive end.
Offense-driving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk will be the most coveted free agent once July 1 rolls around. The 28-year-old can fill a longstanding need for the Blueshirts, given his power play proficiency. Since the 2011-12 season, Shattenkirk has only finished below Ottawa's Erik Karlsson in regular season power play points by a defenseman. Karlsson has 146 over that span (421 games), while Shattenkirk has 131 (418 games). The Rangers' power play slumped to 7.7 percent in the playoffs and signing Shattenkirk would be an immediate upgrade.
But the issue with signing Shattenkirk is going to be the term of his contract. The Rangers have been burned on the back end of expensive, long-term deals for a decade and Shattenkirk will surely command seven-year offers at or above $6.5 million in average annual value.
Acquiring a youthful right-handed blue liner who can embrace a top-pairing role through the trade market would force the Rangers to surrender some of their best young assets. If they're serious about making a run at 23-year-old Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, it's going to take an impressive package to convince Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to part with his blossoming all-around star. If Antti Raanta goes unclaimed in next month's expansion draft, perhaps his inclusion could push a deal forward. Winnipeg is starving for a legitimate No. 1 netminder.
If the Rangers want to gain an elite offensive defenseman without surrendering assets, they should go hard after Shattenkrik. But if they'd rather get a youthful blue liner with a bigger frame and a physical nature, Trouba fits the bill and they will have to give up youth to get youth.
2. GET YOUNGER ON THE BLUE LINE
Girardi and 30-year-old left-hander Marc Staal are in decline and it's imperative that Gorton find a way to exorcise at least one of their hamstringing contracts. Both possess no-movement clauses.
Girardi has three seasons remaining on his $5.5 million AAV contract, while Staal has four seasons left at $5.7 million. If the Rangers were to buy out Girardi, a portion of his cap charge would be spread across the next six seasons. If Staal were to be bought out, the resulting cap charge would be spread across the next eight.
Additionally, 30-year-old Nick Holden was on the ice for some costly goals this playoffs, and his one-year, $1.65 million AAV contract is moveable. Kevin Klein, 32, has been on a downward slide and it won't be easy to get his one-year, $2.9 million deal off the books. Klein dressed for one playoff game.
Brady Skjei, 23, is ready to embrace a full-time, top-four role and there seems to be more blue line youth on the way. Ryan Graves, 22, has impressed for AHL Hartford and could be ready to make the jump. Alexei Bereglazov, 23, and Neal Pionk, 21, were signed as free agents this spring. Graves and Bereglazov are in the shutdown mold, while Pionk produced impressive offensive numbers at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. All three could figure into preseason roster battles.
3. STICK WITH STEPAN
Alternate captain Derek Stepan admitted he was "disappointed and ashamed and flat-out embarrassed" by his postseason performances after the Rangers' Game 6 elimination against the Sens. The world's oldest 26-year-old has been with the Rangers forever and that shouldn't change unless a rival GM makes Gorton an offer he can't refuse.
Stepan is an ideal No. 2 center. He is a continual lock for 50-plus points, plays smart hockey on the both ends of the ice and is regarded as an excellent communicator in the dressing room. Trading away Stepan would be an overcorrection. He had an underwhelming playoffs, but he's fully capable of bouncing back.
4. RIDE OUT ONE MORE YEAR WITH NASH
With one year remaining on Rick Nash's contract at $7.8 million AAV, the Rangers would need to swallow some of his cap hit to facilitate a trade to a team on his 12-team approved list. Nash's regular season points per game dipped to 0.57 last season, the lowest of his career since his 2002-03 rookie season.
It will be hard for the Rangers to move Nash given his cap hit, decline in production and injury history. Nash will turn 33 on June 16. The Rangers are better off sticking with Nash, who offers plenty of positives across three zones despite two consecutive seasons of sub-40-point outputs. Nash described New York as home on breakup day and could be willing to take a sizeable discount in the summer of 2018 to continue calling The Garden his workplace.
5. ALLOW BUCHNEVICH TO GROW INTO TOP-SIX ROLE
The 2017 playoffs was too early for 22-year-old winger Pavel Buchnevich's breakout. Bouts with back spasms stunted his development, though the highly skilled Russian recorded 20 points in 41 games in his debut season.
Expect Buchnevich to follow the paths of J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes to earn head coach Alain Vigneault's trust through a commitment to defensive zone improvement. Should Buchnevich round out his weaker points, he should stay in the lineup. But Vigneault must be able to tolerate the youngster's growing pains to reap the rewards of No. 89's dazzling skill set.
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