The wounds from Friday night’s loss are still fresh, but it’s time to shift in to offseason mode. While they fell short of their ultimate goal, the Rangers accomplished a great deal in the 14/15 season, highlighted by a Presidents’ Trophy and 11 playoff wins. Here are ten positive developments from the year, which are in no particular order.
Kevin Hayes Emerged as a GUY
I’ll admit to being bearish in the preseason about Kevin Hayes’ chances of making a significant enough impact in the NHL to justify bypassing the AHL level altogether, especially while playing a position he hadn’t played in a few years. It became quite obvious as the season progressed that I was very wrong, as Hayes handled third line center duties capably during the first half of the season before coming on strong in the final months. Over the last 35 games of the regular season (since the start of February), Hayes paced the Rangers with 2.93 5v5 points per 60 minutes, and earned an increased role on both special teams’ units.
Hayes’ production trailed off in the playoffs, but that shouldn’t be a cause for much concern. His possession numbers were as strong as ever (a +3.8 relative Corsi%), but he was done in by low percentages. Hayes probably won’t shoot over 15% next season, and we’ll see if he can handle increased defensive responsibilities as he develops, but it is safe to say he exceeded all expectations and is entrenched as an integral piece of the forward group.
J.T. Miller, Full-Time NHLer
Alain Vigneault’s handling of J.T. Miller has frustrated fans on numerous occasions. As Miller’s agent pointed out after his client posted four points in Game Six of the conference final, the Rangers have sent Miller to Hartford on seven separate occasions over the last two seasons. Even when Miller was re-called for good in late November, Vigneault made him a healthy scratch five times (in favor of clearly inferior players) in a 17-game span from late December to early February.
Since February 7th, though, Miller played in every game, playing all over the lineup and in important situations. For someone who entered the season with just 10 career points in 56 games, Miller took the next step and finally benefitted from some good luck this season, making it hard to imagine he’ll have to worry about being a healthy scratch again.
They Shot the Lights Out
The Rangers scored on 8.8% of their 5v5 shots on goal, the fourth-highest shooting percentage in the league. It kept the team afloat for the first couple of months, and then helped propel them to a run of 13 wins in 14 games in the middle of the season. Individually, Rick Nash scored goals in bunches during the first half, which masked many of the team’s shortcomings, while Kevin Klein rode an improbable stretch of good fortune that saw him score eight goals by the first week of January.
After posting a shooting percentage of 6.7 a season ago, the infusion of good luck was sorely needed in order to compensate for the Rangers’ possession game taking a step/multiple steps backward in the 14/15 season.
Derick Brassard’s Cap Hit Looks Pretty Good Right Now
When the Rangers and Brassard avoided arbitration last summer by agreeing to a five-year, 25 million dollar extension, the dollar amount raised some eyebrows. At the time, Brassard had an uneven track record when it came to producing at even strength and driving possession. Personally, I thought it was too soon to commit long-term to Brassard and was frustrated that it was him, and not Mats Zuccarello, getting locked up.
But with Derek Stepan sidelined for the first month of the season, Brassard got the chance to play with Rick Nash, and he turned in the best season of his career. This season should assuage some of the aforementioned concerns about Brassard’s production — he scored 2.19 5v5 points per 60 and drove possession at a clip +3.8% above his teammates. Oh, and he led the team in playoff scoring for the second time in three years.
Had the Rangers opted to for a one-year deal in arbitration last summer, they surely would be paying for it now, which would’ve made this offseason’s cap cruch even more of a nightmare scenario.
They Avoided the Zuccarello, Bozak Trap
There were a few very scary days in late February as the trade deadline approached and negotiations regarding Mats Zuccarello’s contract extension appeared to break down. Reports indicated the Rangers were exploring the trade market for Zuccarello, and one of the names that popped up was Tyler Bozak. Such a move would have been crippling, with Zuccarello’s elite play-driving ability and even strength production being cashed in for fifty cents on the dollar.
Fortunately, Glen Sather and company resisted Toronto’s inquiries (Larry Brooks reported that the Rangers never once called about Bozak, but that Toronto tried hard to entice them), and the situation reached a shockingly pleasant resolution when Zuccarello came down from his already reasonable demands and agreed to a long-term extension for below what he’s worth.
Henrik Lundqvist Made a Full Recovery
Henrik Lundqvist missed almost two months, but he, his friends & family, and the Rangers are incredibly fortunate it wasn’t worse. His vascular injury that resulted from a shot to the neck put him at risk of a stroke, and it’s unfathomable how Jim Ramsay and Alain Vigneault allowed him to stay in the game and play in the following one as well. While Lundqvist’s return took longer than initially anticipated, he looked like his old self almost immediately after getting back in late March. Bullet dodged.
It looks like we’ll be able to say the same for Mats Zuccarello (knock on wood). Adam Herman reported on Saturday that “he’ll be ready for next season.”
They Went For It
The Keith Yandle trade was and still is a divisive issue. I think either side is defensible. Glen Sather certainly parted with a couple of big assets, but he improved a first-place team with a 33 year-old goalie at its weakest position in the here and now. Subtracting Anthony Duclair and a first-round pick from a well below-average prospect pool sucks, but at the end of the day, the on-ice NHL product trumps all other priorities (given where the Rangers are right now).
It wasn’t a half measure, either. He wasn’t a rental, and his cost to the Rangers next season is a measly $2.625 million cap hit. He’s also really, really good, having scored the third-most points among all defenseman since the beginning of the 09/10 season.
While I understand that’s an oversimplification of all the variables at play, the thought process reflects a front office that tried to maximize this group’s chance of winning, and it’s hard to fault them for thinking that way.
Hartford Made a Deep Playoff Run
Just like their parent club, the Hartford Wolf Pack won two playoff rounds before losing in the conference final. I included this a positive development for the Rangers not because Hartford’s success is indicative of a strong prospect pool (it’s not), but rather because the playoff run squeezed 15 more games of development for some of the Rangers’ top prospects. Specifically speaking, I’m talking about Brady Skjei, who could push for a spot in training camp. Skjei skated in eight regular season games after signing an ATO with Hartford, but the playoffs upped that to 23 overall games at the AHL level, which certainly can’t hurt him as he heads into next season.
This relates back to the front office making a concerted effort in free agency to strengthen Hartford, who was coming off two straight playoff misses. As Jared wrote last summer, it was worthwhile for the Rangers to flex their financial muscle in order to cultivate a winning environment in the AHL.
They Won the Presidents’ Trophy
The day after Henrik Lundqvist played his last game before missing two months, @IneffectiveMath’s projections gave the Rangers about a five percent chance of winning the Presidents’ Trophy:
Presidents' Trophy chances over past fortnight. Islanders down to fourth in the race. pic.twitter.com/r2W9V7OVj5
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 4, 2015
Here’s what the NHL standings looked like at that point in time:
By the time Lundqvist returned, the Rangers had emerged as big time favorites for the Presidents’ Trophy:
Presidents' Trophy chances. Still a lot of fluctuation at the top. pic.twitter.com/wQxJzNRiyD
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 28, 2015
It’s remarkable that the Rangers separated themselves from that group of ten teams shown above to finish in first by three points. Obviously, a great deal of credit needs to be thrown Cam Talbot’s way. After a bumpy transition period as the full-time starter, Talbot was Lundqvist-like in 23 starts, posting a .935 5v5 save percentage (.929 overall).
Signed to a reasonable 1.45 million dollar cap hit for next year, Cam Talbot’s strong performance gives the Rangers multiple enticing options. They can hold on to him, knowing that there’s tremendous value in having a backup to spell Lundqvist regularly. Or they can cash in on him now in order to free up cap space and infuse a much needed draft pick or prospect into the system. He still only has 53 NHL starts to his name, but he’s an intriguing asset for the Rangers to play around with.
They Gave Us Memorable Moments
I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored I re-live memorable highlights from seasons past. The Rangers won 11 playoff games, including four in overtime, which makes for a ton of quality material to look back on. From Derick Brassard scoring 28 seconds into the playoffs, to Carl Hagelin closing out the Penguins, to Ryan McDonagh’s overtime winner to stave off elimination, there is a ton of quality material to look back on. Even though the Rangers didn’t win it all, this will never not be fun to watch: