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.
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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.
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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)
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.
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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.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.