Rangers took big step forward, but a lot more work needs done

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From a big picture perspective the 2021-22 New York Rangers season was a pretty significant success.

They made the playoffs for the first time in four years (not counting the 2019-20 play-in round), finished with one of the best regular season records in franchise history, watched as some key young players improved, and reached the Eastern Conference Finals by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes in the first two rounds.

Each series win was highlighted by the Rangers overcoming two-game (3-1 and 2-0) deficits. They found ways to get it done against the odds.

The fact they lost in the conference finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games (losing four in a row to end the series) does not take away from what was accomplished this season. For one, it was a great year and anytime you are one of the last four teams standing that should be seen as a success. Also because the Lightning are a machine and stomp out the playoff hopes of everybody they play. Losing to them is not a sign of weakness or a failure.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

But for as successful as the season was, the Rangers can not be content with that progress. They also can not just assume they will be back in this spot next season or that continued progress is a guarantee. They still have a lot of work to do as an organization, and they were probably very fortunate to get as far as they did this season given the way they played.

They have to be aware of that, and if they choose to ignore it that progress will almost certainly come to a grinding halt in the seasons ahead.

Their playoff success was driven almost entirely by a lethal power play unit that got hot at the right time, and a magnificent season-long performance from Igor Shesterkin in goal. The latter point was the biggest factor in their success as he masked a lot of flaws that still exist on this young and improving team.

A lot of those flaws exist during 5-on-5 play and defensively.

During the regular season the Rangers were last among the 16 playoff teams in most 5-on-5 metrics, from scoring chances, to expected goal share, to shots and chances against, while they were 12th among the playoff teams in 5-on-5 goal differential.

[Related: Avalanche-Lightning to meet in Stanley Cup Final]

Goalies and special teams are important, but you can not always consistently count on those areas to be there every night.

Sometimes your power play will go cold. Even the best goalies are prone to a slump. But if you can remain consistent during 5-on-5 play and control the pace of the game and suppress shots and chances against, while also generating offense when things are even, you can stay in game and always give yourself a chance. The Rangers do not always do that. In fact, they rarely do it.

If the Rangers did not get great goaltending or a couple of power play goals, they did not have much of a chance this season. That includes the playoffs where their 5-on-5 play was objectively poor, especially when compared to other playoff teams. They were badly outshot, outchanced, and mostly outplayed all postseason and were mostly hanging on by a thread in games. They put it all on Shesterkin to carry them, and he took them as far as he possibly could.

In 20 playoff games the Rangers had just 39 percent of the expected goals during 5-on-5 play, a 41 percent scoring chance share, and a 34 percent high-danger scoring chance share.

Teams that play at that level do not typically go very far in the playoffs. Certainly not to the Conference Finals.

Going back over the past 10 postseasons here is where the Rangers’ 5-on-5 performance ranks among the 40 teams that reached the Conference Finals in those same areas.

  • Shot attempt share: 39th (44.5 percent)
  • Expected goal share: 40th (39.1 percent)
  • Expected Goals Against per 60: 40th (3.51; no other team was above 2.9)
  • High-danger scoring chances against per 60: 40th (17.4; no other team was above 13.1)
  • High-danger scoring chance share: 40th (34.9 percent; only team under 41 percent)

Not great!

If Shesterkin was anything less than an MVP/Vezina caliber goalie, their postseason does not last 10 games. Maybe not even five or six games.

Over the last four games against Tampa Bay those flaws were badly exposed. They were outscored 8-1 during 5-on-5 play in those games, while averaging just 0.5 expected goals per 60 minutes (while giving up 2.4; they also gave up more than four expected goals per 60 minutes in all situations). Your goalie can only do so much. Especially against the best teams in the league.

[Related: Stunning numbers from 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs]

None of that means the future outlook is bad. Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Adam Fox, and Shesterkin are all top-line players in the league.

They also saw some of their young building blocks take major leaps forward this season.

K'Andre Miller looked fantastic at times in the playoffs and looks like he could be on the verge of a true breakout season next year.

Their “kid line” of Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko, and Filip Chytil was also one of their best this postseason. Continued development from them, as well as a longer leash from the coaching staff (they were probably underused in the playoffs) could be a game-changer and help solve a lot of those 5-on-5 problems.

The big struggle is going to be finding ways to add to the roster from outside. The Rangers have just $13.4 million in salary cap space to work with this offseason (via CapFriendly) while they have three restricted free agents (including Kakko and Alexandar Georgiev) and seven unrestricted free agents to deal with (including Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, and Justin Braun). That is going to be a challenge.

The elephant in the room is the $8 million per year contract that is going to Jacob Trouba. He made headlines all postseason for his big hits, but that contract is going to be a drag on the Rangers, especially given the improvements that still need to be made and the players they would probably like to retain. He also has a complete no-movement clause in his contract. He is not a bad player, but for $8 million per season they need him to be an impact player. He simply is not, and they have too many other holes to carry that sort of contract around.

This is not meant to be overly critical because there are a lot of positives here. The Rangers have an elite goalie, top-line talent at each position, and some rapidly improving young players that could still become top players. The foundation is in place, and a lot of them are going to be there for a very long time. But they also still need some additional help along their blue line and their forward depth to go from being a nice playoff story in 2022 to a top-tier Stanley Cup contender in the years ahead.

They are closer.

But they still need more.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.