GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The New York Rangers packed their belongings Tuesday to head into the offseason earlier than they expected and earlier than they have since 2011. They lost in five games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round, leaving many, mostly the players and coaches, to wonder: What's going to happen now?
This was a season of regression for the Rangers. They went to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago. They won the Presidents' Trophy and lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last season. They finished with 101 points and got knocked out in the first round this season.
The one constant has been their core. Now it's very possible some of that group will be broken up before next season.
"I think we're at the stage now where we need to look at some changes," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "This group here, the core guys have been together for a while. It is certainly time now to look at what we can do to improve. That's what we're going to do here moving forward."
Their speed and defensive execution sagged to the point where Vigneault said he didn't even have an answer for it. When they needed goalie Henrik Lundqvist the most in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the one player the Rangers absolutely always feel they can count on, he let them down.
Video: Henrik Lundqvist at Rangers Breakup Day
It may not have even mattered if Lundqvist played well considering how well the Penguins were playing coming into the postseason and how poorly the Rangers played in front of their goalie.
So they enter the offseason facing questions about their core, about change, about a championship window that seemed wide open two years ago now being shut and locked.
WHAT THEY SAID:
"I think we have to look at everything. There's no denying that inconsistency this year was a big part of our season, especially from our back end this year. The puck-moving ability that we showed in the past for whatever reason was not as good and it affected a lot of parts of our game. We're going to definitely take a look at all aspects of our game. We're going to analyze and come up with possible solutions. It's not going to be easy. It's not an easy league." -- Vigneault
THE BURNING QUESTION:
Are the Rangers going to make some minor tweaks, or are they looking at more significant changes to their core group?
"I certainly don't think that our group feels that everyone is safe," center Derek Stepan said.
Stepan is right, and the Rangers would be right to consider all potential options. They need to change this up. They need to re-establish their identity as a quick, puck-moving team, which is why they need to make some changes on defense if at all possible.
The Rangers' entire game plan is predicated on getting the puck up the ice with speed, typically by letting the puck do the work with quick, tape-to-tape passes. They regressed big time in that area this season.
If that's the way they want to play, and there's no indication that Vigneault is going to get away from that philosophy, the Rangers need to have the players who can excel in that type of game. They need to get quicker on defense, which will require some painful decisions, if they can be made at all with their NHL salary-cap and contract situations.
The Rangers' younger players, including forward J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast -- provided they're all back -- have to start taking on leadership roles. It's no longer OK for them to take a secondary role and make youthful mistakes.
Video: Alain Vigneault at Season-Ending Breakup Day
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who missed the last three games of the regular season and the first three games against Pittsburgh, confirmed he was playing with a broken bone in his right index finger. He said it was difficult for him to handle his stick.
Defenseman Dan Girardi said he missed Games 2-4 of the series because of a concussion. He sustained the concussion on a hit by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brian Boyle on April 5 and his symptoms returned in Game 1 against Pittsburgh.
Lundqvist said he was dealing with some neck issues, but nothing that should have prevented him from playing at his best. His said his right eye injury, which he sustained in Game 1, was not an issue for him once he returned to play in Game 2.
WHO COULD GO:
The Rangers' potential unrestricted free agents include forwards Eric Staal, Viktor Stalberg and Dominic Moore, defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle, and goalie Antti Raanta.
Staal is likely a goner. He didn't live up to expectations, and part of that is because he was never put in a role that would allow him to produce the way he believes he can.
Stalberg and Moore could be back if the Rangers want to keep the veteran fourth-liners around, but it's also possible they go with youth at those positions. Forward Oscar Lindberg had an up and down rookie season, but he deserves a better chance next season.
The Rangers want Yandle back and Yandle wants to stay, but he also wants to get paid his market value, which might be too high for the Rangers unless they can trade Girardi or Marc Staal.
Video: NYR@PIT, Gm2: Yandle buries loose puck, evens game
The problem for general manager Jeff Gorton is that moving either of them will be difficult. Staal has a no-trade clause and is signed through the 2020-21 season with an NHL salary-cap charge of $5.7 million, according to war-on-ice.com. Girardi has a no-movement clause in his contract for next season. He's signed through the 2019-20 season at a cap charge of $5.5 million.
Raanta was a good backup goalie to Lundqvist and could be back at the right price. Boyle said he is likely to retire.
The Rangers need to add more speed to their back end and an extra element of scoring up front, but likely will have to move players out before they can think about bringing in veterans who can make an impact.
They might, however, have two solutions in house, which would be a good start.
Russian forward Pavel Buchnevich is the Rangers' best prospect. He had 37 points in 58 games in the Kontinental Hockey League this season and the hope is that he will sign and play in North America next season. If he does, he'll be given a chance to make the team, likely as a top-six forward.
Defenseman Brady Skjei impressed Vigneault with his poise and ability to defend and move the puck in the playoffs and late in the regular season. He played in all five games against the Penguins and in the final three regular-season games because McDonagh was injured.
Skjei seems to have a lock on one of the top-six defense spots now and could be Yandle's replacement if he leaves via free agency. They're different players, but Skjei, like Yandle, is a lefty who can skate and create some offense.
2016 DRAFT PICKS:
The Rangers have five picks in the 2016 NHL Draft, but none until the third round. They traded their first-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes last season to acquire Yandle; they traded their second-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes this season to get Eric Staal.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM:
Despite the obvious playoff disappointment, the Rangers finished with 101 points and saw some growth from young players, including Miller, Fast and Skjei. Those three, along with Kreider and potentially Hayes, if he picks up his game and starts to use his big body more, could be part of the new core.