Rangers still have concerns, big questions to answer

rangers offseason
Al Bello, Getty Images

The start of the 2022-23 NHL season is still a couple of months away, so there is still time for teams to round out their roster and make moves this offseason. That is good news for the New York Rangers because after the first month of the NHL offseason their roster still has some pretty significant question marks and concerns.

This was always going to be an important offseason for the Rangers because we were going to find out what they learned about why they had their success this past season and what they felt they still needed to do. For as successful as the season was, their playoff formula (sensational goaltending and a dominant power play overshadowing bad 5-on-5 play) is not exactly one that you want to rely on long-term. Being content with the progress and status quo was not going to be good enough.

The early returns are not exactly promising.

The Rangers’ one big move so far this offseason has been to sign unrestricted free agent Vincent Trocheck to a seven-year, $39.75 million contract.

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Trocheck is a very good player, and in the short-term should be a nice fit as the team’s new second-line center. The seven-year term is a big picture concern, but the Rangers do not have to cross the bridge just yet.

The more immediate concern is that the signing of Trocheck (a really good player) came at the expense of losing Ryan Strome (also a pretty good player), Andrew Copp (also a pretty good player), and Frank Vatrano (also a pretty good player) in free agency.

That is one good player in and three good players out the door.

Strome and Trocheck have been pretty close to a wash offensively over the past few years, while Trocheck has a nice defensive advantage. So there is an upgrade there at the second-line center spot. That is fine.

The problem is they not only lost Strome, but also lost Copp and Vatrano. Strome has been replaced. Copp and Vatrano have not.

[Related: Rangers sign Trocheck]

While they did not spend a lot of time with the Rangers last year (both joining the team at the trade deadline) their arrivals were significant in taking them from a nice young, up and coming team, to a dangerous team that would be capable of doing real damage in the playoffs. They gave a team that needed scoring depth and more punch offensively exactly that. Copp, along with his offensive production (14 goals, 18 assists and 32 total points in 36 regular season and playoff games), was also a significant defensive upgrade.

There is still time for them to be replaced. But it is going to be a challenge. Most of the major trades have been made. The main free agents have mostly been picked over (though bargains and value can still be found). Even worse, the Rangers have less than $4 million in salary cap space to work with while still needing to re-sign restricted free agent Kaapo Kakko. They almost have to more salary out for another move.

At this point the Rangers seem to be counting on three things happening this season: Shesterkin being as dominant as he was a year ago, Chris Kreider‘s goal scoring surge being for real and not an outlier, and their young players taking a big step forward.

Igor Shesterkin
Al Bello/Getty Images

Can Shesterkin carry them again?

Shesterkin was the biggest factor in the Rangers’ regular season and postseason success. He was the best goalie in the league by a substantial margin and at times put the team on his back.

But for as dominant as he was, can he be that good again over a full season?

The problem with relying on percentages is that percentages fluctuate, even for great players. Since the start of the 2000 season we have seen 18 goalies play at least 40 regular season games and finish with a save percentage better than .930, including Shesterkin. Those goalies, no matter how good they are, almost always regress the following year. The only one that did not was Carey Price in 2015-16 whose save percentage went up by .001 …. while playing in only 12 games due to injury.

The full list.

On average, it was a .015 drop the next season. Even if you took .010 or .015 off of Shesterkin’s numbers this season he would still be in the top-five of the league, and perhaps even still lead the league. He was that much better than everybody else. But a 10-15 point drop in save percentage on the same number of shots is an additional 15-25 goals against. That is significant.

“Our goalie is better than your goalie, so let’s just see what happens” is not a sound plan. It did not get Henrik Lundqvist a Stanley Cup in New York, and it will not get Shesterkin one, either.

The young players will dictate everything

This is going to be the biggest key for the Rangers, and it can go a long way toward fixing a lot of the questions listed above, from scoring depth, to a potential Kreider regression, to improving 5-on-5 play.

This is where the Rangers can make their noise. Quite honestly, it is where they are going to have to make their noise.

We saw some promise from their Kid Line of Kappo, Alexis Lafrenière, and Filip Chytill in the playoffs. And they were great together. But it was also only a 140-minute sample size of 5-on-5 play. And while each of them has shown flashes of potential at different times in their young careers, they still have to show they can do it over a full season. Lafrenière and Kakko are still very young, and even though they were both top-two picks those players progress at different speeds. Not every top pick is an immediate superstar. But we are still getting to a point where we are going to need to see a significant jump if they are going to be star players, or just pretty good players. If it is the former, that is a positive game-changer for the Rangers. If it is the latter, it still leaves some questions.

[Related: Rangers took big step forward, but work still needs done]

K'Andre Miller and Braden Schneider can also make a significant impact on defense, and then there is the wild card that is Vitaly Kravtsov.

There is a ton of potential there with all of them. But not every young player or prospect pans out exactly as you hope, especially when you are dealing with five or six of them all at once. Some will exceed expectations, some will match them, some will get hurt, some will just be a disappointment.

This is still a good team. But is it as good as the 2021-22 team? Will it be better?

The success or failure of this group of players is going to go a long way toward determining how their 2022-23 season goes.

Given the roster moves they have made (and not made) this offseason, they almost have no choice.

Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

“I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

“They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

“We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.