The speculation amongst some following Friday’s loss in Game 7 Eastern Conference Final to Tampa Bay has been that the Rangers’ Stanley Cup window is beginning to shut. The Rangers, though, feel very differently.
“We’ve got a lot of good hockey players in this room who have had a lot of success winning games,” said Marc Staal at Monday’s breakup day. “We just haven’t been able to finish it off and win a championship. I think everyone in here believes we can do it. It’s just a matter of getting it done. Come back next year and look to improve and take another crack at it.”
On paper, there’s little reason to believe this group’s opportunity has passed it by. The core squad has made the Eastern Conference Final three times in the last four years, including a Presidents Trophy this past season.
The salary cap era head led to heavy turnover rates throughout the League, but not so much in New York where the Blueshirts have 10 players who have spent parts of the last three seasons together; the team’s core of Girardi, Staal, Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan have all been together since the 2011-12 season. Lundqvist, Girardi and Staal have been teammates since the 2007-08 season.
“We’ve had the same core guys here for the last six, seven years,” Girardi said. “We built the team around that. We brought guys in who have been here three or four years now. It just seems this team gels. We got some guys at the deadline who fit right in.
“There’s no transition time,” Girardi continued. “Everyone is on the same page. Just being together for this long the whole year, you get close to guys. Hopefully a lot of guys are back next year and we have another good run.”
The Rangers have played a lot of hockey since the start of the 2011-12 season — 370 games between the regular and postseason to be exact — but the team’s roster is consisting of young veterans. Up front, the average age of players currently under contract is 26, with just Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Rick Nash at or above 30 years old.
On defense, the Rangers’ current six averages 30 years old — though just one, Dan Boyle, is over 32. In net, Henrik Lundqvist won’t turn 34 until close to the end of next season.
“It’s a pretty young group,” said Chris Kreider, 24. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group and I thikn the guys are more motivated than ever.”
With that said, Girardi, 31, knows that each opportunity at a Cup that isn’t unfulfilled is an opportunity missed.
“There is some type of window,” Girardi admitted. “Obviously for me, it might be five years, might be more, might be less. I think these years coming up are very important. If we keep the team together, we’re going to have a chance every year. The way the team is built, we’ve got Hanky in net, great D-core and great forwards, so I think we’re set up to do some good, long runs. We know what it takes so we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
A team doesn’t win 53 games and bank 113 points by accident, with McDonagh attributed this year’s team success to a team-first mentality with each player knowing what their job was and executing it as best as he could.
“It’s a tremendous group of guys,” said McDonagh, who suffered a broken foot midway through the Tampa Bay series. “Like I’ve said countless times, [the team] really bought into their role and were very unselfish in the aspect of doing what the coaching staff asked of them, whether it was a smaller role or a bigger role.”
McDonagh, so crucial to this team’s core success, echoed his teammates’ sentiment that this team as constructed has what it takes to reach its final goal.
“This group is one that really pulls for one another and understands what it takes for the group to win every night,” the captain explained. “Ultimately we didn’t get it done this year and came up short of making it to the finals, but this group has a lot of things you can’t get anywhere else: the belief, the trust and the work-ethic to want to be better and want to win every night.”
Health is crucial for any team’s success in the playoffs, and unfortunately the Rangers didn’t have it this spring. When healthy, Derick Brassard believes there’s no reason the Rangers cannot be a contender again in 2016.
“I believe that we have the team [to contend],” the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs said. “I think [Mats Zuccarello’s injury] really hurt our team when he got down there. I think if we’re healthy, we’re one of the contenders. We’ve proved it the last two years. We had a great record, we won the League this year in the standings. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have the team to do it. We have a great group of guys here.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault was 20 minutes away from coaching in his third Stanley Cup Final since 2011. He said despite coming up short of the team’s goal of reaching the Final, he still believes with some tweaks, this group can reach its ultimate goal.
“We’ve been knocking at the door, we’ve been getting close to the hump there and almost getting ready to get fully over,” Vigneault said. “So if you ask me, do I believe in this group? I would say my answer is yes.”