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Lundqvist, rebuilding Rangers brace for rough road ahead

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WASHINGTON — Henrik Lundqvist got an early glimpse into the New York Rangers’ rebuilding future.

It’s not pretty.

Lundqvist roiled with frustration after a rookie defensemen left an opponent wide open for a tying goal that led to New York’s 44th loss of a lost season. As Zen-like as he was earlier in the day about the new organizational direction toward youth and away from trying to win now, the face of the franchise for more than a decade was bothered by a mistake caused by inexperience that’s sure to be repeated over the coming years.

”So frustrating,” Lundqvist said.

When general manager Jeff Gorton committed the Rangers to a roster refresh that laid waste to 2018 playoff hopes and set the stage for pain that could last longer than Lundqvist’s prime, the star goaltender battled his own internal conflict. The 36-year-old from Sweden had never played in an NHL game with no chance of making the playoffs.

”As a competitor, you want to win, and I never experienced that before where you’re like, ‘We can’t go for this,”’ Lundqvist said Wednesday, hours after the Rangers were eliminated from contention but several weeks since it became clear they wouldn’t make the postseason. ”It was definitely a new experience. But we’re all on board in this.”

Lundqvist and his veteran Rangers teammates have two choices: get on board or be tossed overboard. When it became apparent this team didn’t have the stuff to compete for the Stanley Cup, Gorton traded captain Ryan McDonagh and forwards Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner before the deadline and set a course for the future.

With three years left on Lundqvist’s contract at $8.5 million per season, how far away that future is remains painfully unclear. After 11 playoff appearances and a trip to the final with Lundqvist as the backbone, the Rangers may not get within reach of the Cup in his prime or even his career – but even current players see the need for change.

”I think it’s good for this organization to get some fresh air and some new young players and go from there,” 30-year-old winger Mats Zuccarello said. ”But it’s going to be a process.”

The process began last summer with the trade of veteran center Derek Stepan to Arizona for the seventh overall pick that turned into Lias Andersson and the selection of Filip Chytil later in the first round. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Brady Skjei are young building blocks already in place, and there’s hope that free agent addition Kevin Shattenkirk and trade acquisition Vladislav Namestnikov become part of the long-term solution.

When the Rangers played at Washington on Wednesday night in their first game with no hope of playoffs since 2004, they dressed 15 players age 26 and younger. New York’s future is its present, which can mean blunders like Neal Pionk‘s missed assignment in front, along with the excitement and potential of prospects like the 22-year-old defenseman, Andersson and Chytil.

”When you see the progress of the group, especially the young players, that gives you hope for what’s ahead of us,” Lundqvist said.

With a full no-movement clause and the equity he has built up with the Rangers, Lundqvist can choose his future. Others, like Zuccarello and coach Alain Vigneault, aren’t so fortunate.

In February, when he announced plans to go young, Gorton didn’t want to answer a question about whether Vigneault would be back next season other than to praise his coaching and say, ”We’re all responsible in some way here for what we’re seeing.” This spring will be the first time in a decade Vigneault hasn’t coached in the playoffs, a tough turn for the 56-year-old who almost certainly will be behind an NHL bench somewhere next season.

”A tough decision was made for the long-term future of this organization and you have to respect it and you have to do your jobs,” Vigneault said Wednesday. ”That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what my staff is trying to do and that’s what the players are trying to do.”

Try as they might to focus on the final few games of the season, the Rangers feel the threat of drastic change that hangs over them. Lundqvist said ”now is not the time” to talk about the bumpy road ahead.

Describing one of the most successful runs in franchise history, Zuccarello used words like lucky, fortunate and even spoiled. In a sport with a salary cap, it’s difficult to remain among the top teams for even this long, and now everyone is bracing for the uncertainty of what’s next.

”This is a new situation for most of the guys that have been here for a while, but you have to buy in, you know?” Zuccarello said. ”It is what it is. It’s nothing you can do about it. … Hopefully I have some good years – five, six good years – left and can be part of the rebuild and come to the good times again.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Rangers at Capitals

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PROJECTED LINES

New York Rangers

Chris Kreider / Mika Zibanejad / Jesper Fast

Kevin Hayes / Filip Chytil / Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey / Lias Andersson / Ryan Spooner

Cody McLeod / Vladislav Namestnikov / Pavel Buchnevich

Marc Staal / Neal Pionk

Brady Skjei / Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour / Rob O'Gara

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[Rangers – Capitals preview]

Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin / Evgeny Kuznetsov / Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky / Nicklas Backstrom / T.J. Oshie

Shane Gersich / Lars Eller / Devante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson / Jay Beagle / Alex Chiasson

Dmitry Orlov / Matt Niskanen

Michal Kempny / John Carlson

Brooks Orpik / Christian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

WATCH LIVE: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers

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PROJECTED LINES

Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin / Evgeny Kuznetsov / Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky / Nicklas Backstrom / T.J. Oshie

Brett Connolly / Lars Eller / Jakub Vrana

Chandler Stephenson / Jay Beagle / Alex Chiasson

Michal Kempny / John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov / Matt Niskanen

Jakub Jerabek / Brooks Orpik

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

[Capitals – Rangers preview]

New York Rangers

Chris Kreider / Mika Zibanejad / Jesper Fast

Kevin Hayes / Filip Chytil / Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey / Lias Andersson / Ryan Spooner

Cody McLeod / Vladislav Namestnikov / Pavel Buchnevich

Marc Staal / Neal Pionk

Brady Skjei / Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour / Rob O'Gara

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

WATCH LIVE: Penguins at Rangers – Wednesday Night Rivalry

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PROJECTED LINES

Pittsburgh Penguins

Jake Guentzel/Sidney Crosby/Conor Sheary

Carl Hagelin/Evgeni Malkin/Patric Hornqvist

Bryan Rust/Derick Brassard/Phil Kessel

Tom Kuhnhackl/Riley Sheahan/Carter Rowney

Brian Dumoulin/Kris Letang

Jamie Oleksiak/Justin Schultz

Olli Maatta/Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

[PHT’s preview for Penguins – Rangers.]

New York Rangers

Chris Kreider/Mika Zibanejad/Jesper Fast

Ryan Spooner/Kevin Hayes/Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey/Vladislav Namestnikov/Pavel Buchnevich

Cody McLeod/David Desharnais/Paul Carey

Marc Staal/Neal Pionk

Brady Skjei/Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour/Rob O'Gara

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Spooner presents Rangers with another tough future decision

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Ryan Spooner is really cuddling up to this opportunity to make waves with the New York Rangers.

After collecting two assists in his Rangers debut (being involved in both goals in a 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit), Spooner topped himself last night, generating three more assists as the Rangers managed a 6-5 overtime win against the Vancouver Canucks.

Vladislav Namestnikov made a great first impression with the Rangers, scoring a goal and an assist during last night’s debut.

It almost makes you wonder if the Rangers might embrace this new, post-trade deadline reality and just be … messy fun?

Naturally, it’s not reasonable to expect Spooner, 26, to generate 2.5 assists per game during his stay with the Rangers – however long that is.

Still, plenty of people must feel vindicated that they pointed out that, despite some bumpy times with the Boston Bruins, he’s quietly carved out some nice numbers. In 39 games this season, Spooner managed a solid 25 points for the B’s. Rick Nash, meanwhile, generated 28 points (though with 18 goals) in his final 60 games with the Rangers.

Spooner’s showing remarkable chemistry so far with Jesper Fast and Kevin Hayes, which might provide some precious relief for Rangers fans. Actually, for a team that unloaded some significant names, the Rangers’ top nine still looks dangerous enough to make them a “spoiler” headache down the stretch:

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Spooner — Hayes — Fast

Jimmy Vesey — Namestnikov — Mats Zuccarello

Not half-bad, right? Of course, the defense is the real problem here, but the Rangers might actually be entertaining, combining some solid offense with Henrik Lundqvist stubbornly trying to make 50 saves per night.

The other interesting facet of the NHL-ready players the Rangers received in their slew of trades is that they, too, received rentals in Spooner and Namestnikov. Mike Murphy of Blueshirt Banter ponders Spooner’s future with the team, wondering if he might get lost in the free-agent shuffle and noting that Namestnikov is likely a higher priority to re-sign:

Spooner is coming off of a one-year, $2,825,000 contract. If the Rangers want him around for more than next season his AAV is going to approach $4 million a year, depending on the term. There’s a good chance that a contract like that won’t fit into Gorton’s vision of what this team needs to be. If that’s the case, moving him on draft day would be the best way forward.

Glancing at the Rangers’ Cap Friendly page, the Rangers will need to decide what to do with a wide array of restricted free agents: Spooner, Namestnikov, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, Brady Skjei, John Gilmour, and Rob O'Gara.

With a pile of picks and some new players to ponder, the Rangers gave themselves a ton of flexibility this summer. The challenge, then, is to make the most of these opportunities and avoid boxing themselves in with mistakes.

Figuring out what to do with Spooner may very well be filed with making the most of those later first-rounders under “easier said than done.”

More: 

What’s next for Rangers rebuild?

Some Rangers feel like the organization threw in the towel.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.