The New York Rangers are once again on the outside looking in as two other teams face off for the Stanley Cup. But despite their shortcomings, there is a wealth of lessons the Rangers can learn from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.
The New York Rangers fell short in the second round of the playoffs, but the two teams still alive are uniquely situated to establish the new benchmark in the NHL. It is, after all, a copycat league, the Penguins and Predators have many aspects that teams should be copying.
And there’s hope that the Rangers will, in fact, learn something this year. Last year, the Rangers got steamrolled by a faster, deeper, more skilled Pittsburgh team. General Manager Jeff Gorton turned around and filled out the Rangers’ forward ranks with skilled players. The likes of Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey, Nathan Gerbe, Josh Jooris, Brandon Pirri, and Matt Puempel saw time this season.
The Rangers had so many skilled forwards that, even with Oscar Lindberg’s delayed start, Jooris and Gerbe ended up in Arizona and Europe, respectively. That forward depth was key to the success in New York during the 2016-17 season.
This summer, the Rangers have new lessons they can learn.
Lessons from Pittsburgh
The Penguins are primed to be the first repeat Stanley Cup winners in almost 20 years. More impressively, they’re doing it despite a mountain of injuries. Their success in overcoming the losses of veterans has been to infuse their lineup with young talent.
The likes of Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, and Derek Pouliot have been key to this run. Meanwhile, big names like Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist, and Carl Hagelin have missed time.
The Rangers, however, undermined their own chances by once again turning to Tanner Glass late in the season when injuries were mounting, and stuck with him over young talent like Pavel Buchnevich, Puempel, Marek Hrivik, or even Boo Nieves.
New York needs to learn from Pittsburgh that they must use their young talent and give those players opportunities to thrive.
Lessons from Nashville
The Western Conference champions are where they are for an entirely different reason. The Predators boast what is probably the best defensive unit in the league, with a top four consisting of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. That kind of talent is almost absurd.
What’s more impressive is that of those four players, only Subban is making a lot of money—and his contract was signed in Montreal. Josi, Ekholm, and Ellis combined make less than Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.
As far as the Rangers are concerned, that’s unacceptable.
The takeaway here once again revolves around the prioritization of youth and skill, but it goes a step further. The Rangers are kings of the bridge deal, with most talented young players getting that treatment.
A change in culture should be implemented, starting with players like Brady Skjei and Mika Zibanejad. In a couple seasons, the Rangers can potentially find themselves with bargain stars on the roster.
Instead of paying huge UFA contracts to players after their primes, the Rangers should try—as much as possible—to pay them during their primes and move them for younger assets down the road. Instead of getting stuck with contracts like Girardi or Staal, the Rangers should be looking more at what they gave to Ryan McDonagh (six years, $4.7M AAV).
While these changes can’t all be implemented immediately, the opportunity exists for 2017-18 to mark a shift in priorities. That change can set the stage for many years of success down the road, especially in a salary-capped NHL. The New York Rangers need to buy in on this culture change.