The mood inside the MSG Training Center at Rangers break up day Tuesday perfectly matched the gloomy, grey weather outside. The past two springs this day had been met with disappointment, yes, but with equal parts pride, hope and a sense of accomplishment, as well, following runs to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and 2015 Eastern Conference Final. Tuesday, though, had a completely different feel.
"Obviously this is disappointing," stated the team's leading scorer Mats Zuccarello on Tuesday. "We're a team that expects to play hockey when it's good weather outside. This year is really disappointing."
Added Marc Staal, one of the Blueshirts alternate captains, "It's never easy, but definitely a little more sour this time around. It's definitely a lot earlier than what we wanted it to be."
The players had end-of-season physicals on Tuesday, individually met with the coaching staff--with Derick Brassard noting "the meetings were a lot longer this year"--and spoke with reporters before venturing into the off-season much earlier than anyone had envisioned when this group assembled for training camp back in September.
"This day always stinks, it's always the worst day," stated alternate captain Derek Stepan. "But we're out and we're focused on next season. It starts tomorrow for everybody to focus on what we can do to be better next year."
The Rangers were knocked out of the first round by a Pittsburgh Penguin team that now has won 18 of its last 21 games, and while several Rangers made sure to praise the Penguins for how well they played in the series, the bottom line was that the players were mostly just upset with their own individual and collective performance in the short post-season--and were not oblivious to the issues that arose during the regular season, either.
"We're all sitting over the past few days searching for answers, and it's a tough thing to put our fingers on when we've been so solid the last couple of years," said Marc Staal. "We weren't that team for most of the year."
Brassard added simply, "The way we lost stinks...it's an awful feeling today."
Of course not to be lost in the gloom and doom of an early off-season is the fact that this Rangers team did earn 101 points and reached the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season--and tenth time in the past 11 years.
Many of the players also felt that there will be even more motivation heading into next season based on how this one ended.
"This game is a lot about determination and how much you want it," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "I want it as bad as I did ten years ago, maybe more. That's my motivation this off-season and next year."
Next season will provide its own set of challenges, beginning with a training camp where several Rangers will be away representing their respective countries in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Then there will be the long grind of a competitive 82-game schedule just to reach another Stanley Cup playoff.
And how much of this roster will be turned over is also in question. There are six unrestricted free agents on the current roster and another three key restricted free agents, plus head coach Alain Vigneault vowed on Tuesday that changes would be made to how the Rangers are constructed next season.
"Any time the expectation has been to win the Stanley Cup, like it has been here for the last several years, and we keep coming up short there's obviously that anticipation of things changing," noted Marc Staal, whose brother Eric is one of those unrestricted free agents. "We didn't get it going as consistently as we wanted to in the regular season and certainly in the playoffs, but I still like the guys in this room, and we'll see what happens over the next few months."