GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The New York Rangers were still dealing with a whirlwind of emotions as they cleaned out their lockers Monday following their defeat in five games against the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. With the Rangers' front office facing a series of difficult decisions this summer, the emotional start to the offseason may be a sign of things to come.
The Rangers lost three games in extra time during the best-of-7 Cup Final, including a devastating double-overtime loss in Game 5 on Friday in which Alec Martinez's game-winner lifted the Kings to the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons.
"It was a tough loss that's going to haunt me and my group for some time," New York coach Alain Vigneault said. "I'm hoping we're going to learn from this and we as management are going to work on putting a good team on the ice. But every year is different. Next year's team is going to be different, and we've got to go through the same process."
Here are five questions the Rangers must answer in that process:
1. Will center Brad Richards be back?
Richards enjoyed a bounce-back season, but he is a prohibitively expensive player with six seasons remaining on the nine-year, $60 million contract he signed in 2011. Considering Richards has proven to be inconsistent and finished the Final playing on New York's fourth line, he is an ideal candidate for the Rangers' final compliance buyout, which would remove Richards' considerable annual salary-cap charge of $6.67 million.
Richards was not available at New York's breakdown day, and Vigneault said the Rangers are still mulling their options when asked about the possibility of Richards being bought out.
"Brad's an experienced guy that knows that we've got some decisions to make that aren't easy. He's going to be a pro," Vigneault said. "I'm a big fan of Brad Richards. I've said it from Day 1. He's a classy individual there. We'll see what happens."
It's a tough spot for the player who was hailed for his leadership after former captain Ryan Callahan was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the NHL Trade Deadline. But the move appears likely if the Rangers hope to deal with a long list of impending free agents.
2. Can New York re-sign Anton Stralman?
A number of players flourished under Vigneault after he was named New York's coach last summer. Few benefitted quite like Stralman, who cemented his place among the Rangers' top-four defensemen and emerged as a reliable stay-at-home force in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Stralman, 27, has seven goals in three seasons with the Rangers, but has made a number of big defensive plays since arriving in New York, none bigger than a game-saving play in Game 4 of the Cup Final in which he swiped a loose puck out of the crease after a shot squeaked past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, Stralman could be an important piece moving forward for the Rangers, who don't have a wealth of young defensive prospects waiting in the wings. The combination of Stralman and Marc Staal was a consistent, smart pairing the Rangers would hate to see broken up.
"The only thing in my mind really is security for me and my family. We've been moving a lot. We've been with four teams in seven years now," Stralman said. "All we're really looking for is stability; we want to stay in one place. This is obviously where we'd like to stay. I hope it's going to happen. We'll see."
3. How will the Rangers handle their other free agents?
There are also several important players slated to become restricted free agents this summer, including forwards Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, all of whom had breakout seasons and are crucial pieces of the Rangers' core moving forward. The focus on New York's list of restricted free agents, which includes defenseman John Moore, is even more magnified since forwards Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan can become RFAs next summer.
Two of the Rangers' top veterans, Staal and Martin St. Louis, can also become unrestricted free agents in 2015, so re-signing each before he can test the market could also be part of New York's immediate plans.
"I think any hockey player would prefer to be locked up before you start playing," Staal said. "It's not going to be the end of the world if nothing happens, but obviously you'd rather it be done than not."
4. Who will be the Rangers' next captain?
After Callahan was traded, the Rangers decided to play the remainder of the season without a captain. The unusual tactic allowed other players to emerge as leaders, most notably Richards and St. Louis, who was acquired in exchange for Callahan.
Vigneault has already started thinking about who he will name captain.
"I've got an idea where I'm leaning, but I'm not going to share that," Vigneault said. "I'm going to let training camp unfold or maybe I'll make the decision prior to it."
One of the most obvious candidates is defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has emerged as both a leader off the ice and an elite player on it. McDonagh, 25, is signed through 2018-19 and is entering his prime after being named New York's most valuable player in 2013-14. Also the recipient of the Players' Player Award, which goes to the Ranger who "best exemplifies what it means to be a team player," McDonagh is ready to assume the captain's role.
"This year, the way my play was escalating, I felt more confident as the year was going on," McDonagh said. "I think when given a lot more responsibility, I was able to step up and help our team win a lot of games."
5. Will the Rangers build off their experience?
The answer here will be predicated by the moves New York makes this offseason. How the Rangers handle the pressure of being the defending Eastern Conference champions will dictate how deep they make it in the postseason in the coming years.
"It's a great core group," forward Rick Nash said. "I've played a few years in my career and I haven't seen a group as tight as this one. I think it's pretty special when you find that."
If that core group can stay together, the Rangers could be poised to make another playoff run. But they'll have to harness the lessons they learned this season and apply them moving forward.
As they cleaned out their lockers Monday, each player admitted the bitter taste of losing to the Kings would keep them motivated when next season starts.
"Obviously we're not happy we're not the Cup champions," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "It gives us even more incentive next year to be a little more hungry."
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