It's been less than a week since the Rangers' season ended with a Game Seven home-ice defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, and just two days since the players cleaned out their lockers, met with coaches and management, and spoke with reporters on Monday at the MSG Training Center--enough time to gather some thoughts on the sudden and surprising end to the Blueshirts very memorable 2014-15 season.
So here are a handful of my takeaways, from a reporter who has been at virtually every Rangers practice and game--not only this season, but since 2008-09.
AV's Emotion: At the core of Alain Vigneault's personality is that he is a very even-keeled stoic man, and coach; and he was that way in the moments after the Game Seven loss, and while meeting with reporters Monday afternoon. However there were cracks during that Break Up Day session with the media where if you've been around the man long enough, you knew he was hurting really bad inside. The touching story of how inconsolable his 22 year-old daughter was in the aftermath of Friday's game at The Garden, his admitting that "this has been really hard to handle", and terming his team's ouster as "painful" while the look in his eyes said exactly the same thing as his words--these all were windows into the soul of the head coach. A year ago at Break Up Day Vigneault seemed disappointed, maybe even frustrated, that the Rangers could not find a way past the Kings in the Cup Final; but devastated did not seem an appropriate word to describe AV. That was different on Monday. Perhaps the fact that his team had met every one of its own expectations along the way in 2014-15 in an attempt to "change the ending" compared to the surprising magical run in the second half of last season and throughout the 2014 post season is at the heart of what pains the coach more this year. The pain, though, was evident Monday, and you just sense that Alain Vigneault will use that as even more motivation to climb back to the top of the hill next season.
The Kids Are Alright: I am a huge believer that, especially in the salary cap world of the National Hockey League, a team needs at least a couple of young players every season to become regular contributors at the NHL level. This has been one of the Rangers' keys to success in recent years, a run that has seen the team reach the Eastern Conference Final three of the last four years and the Stanley Cup Final once. First it was Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, and Carl Hagelin, then Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, then Cam Talbot, and now it's J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast. Add in the acquisition of Derick Brassard in 2013 and that's a rich stable of younger players who all now comprise a big part of the Rangers' roster, along with core veterans Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Rick Nash. Hayes had a standout first year in the NHL, scoring 17 goals, 29 assists and 46 points as the league's fifth-highest scoring rookie. In the second half of the season he was arguably one of the team's top three forwards on a consistent basis, playing an exciting creative style offensively and smart in his own end of the ice. Whether at center or on the wing, Hayes is a keeper and a major part of the present and future of this organization--a huge addition after being signed as a free agent out of college last summer. Fast established himself as an NHL regular this season, as well, one of Vigneault's most-trusted soldiers, too. Six goals and 14 points in 58 games, plus three goals in the playoffs that featured the two-goal outburst down in Tampa--Fast is only scratching the surface offensively, and he is a bull on the forecheck, and exceptionally smart in all facets of the game. You win with players like Jesper Fast on your team. Then there's Miller, who was on the receiving end of much tough love from Vigneault last year and early this season. The 22 year-old grew up big-time, improved as the year went along, and then had a very strong playoff, ending up on the top line and producing that memorable four-point night in Game Six against the Lightning. You get the feeling that J.T. is headed to a breakout season in 2015-16 now that he has the maturity and confidence to go along with his impressive skill-set.
The Window Has Not Closed Shut: It is a legitimate question--after playing in more playoff games than any other team the past four years and coming up short of the ultimate goal each season, is the well set to run dry on the Rangers quest to quench their Cup thirst? No doubt a team can not expect to keep making long playoff runs, whether they end up winning or losing it all in the end, because this league is so darn competitive--as AV always points out--and there are always going to be things you can't predict along the way, most notably injuries. However the Blueshirts' core players are still in their prime--Lundqvist, Staal, Girardi, Nash, Keith Yandle--and Brassard, Stepan, McDonagh, Zuccarello, Miller, Hayes and Kreider are among those still improving by the year, whose best is clearly still in front of them. That's not a bad nucleus to start from. Vigneault admitted there will be tweaks made this off-season, but it is more than fair to expect the Rangers to be right there in the mix again next season. How far that takes them? Well that's why you come to the games and watch the Blueshirts on the television. The story will unfold as it is meant to unfold.