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Rangers’ off-season plan can quickly shift from ‘the process’ to winning

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Call it a “rebuild,” a “re-tooling” or a “reshaping,” but what the New York Rangers are going through as they prepare for the future won’t last very long. The pain will be temporary.

When general manager Jeff Gorton sent that February letter to season-ticket holders about turning the page on this season and getting assets for veterans while incorporating youngsters, it was a welcomed sign. The brass knew the roster they had likely wouldn’t find success in the postseason, if they even found a way in, so might as well cash-in and turn the page.

But benefiting the Rangers is that they’re an organization that will spend, and with Henrik Lundqvist still solid in goal and with three more years left on his contract, now’s not the time to tear it completely down. The goaltender himself is adamant he wants a return to contender status next season.

“Next year has to be about winning and nothing else,” Lundqvist told Larry Brooks of the New York Post this week. “I understand that the end now has been about the young guys getting used to the league and getting confidence, but next year is not about the process. It’s about winning games.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Gorton has a busy summer ahead of him. The Rangers have seven picks in the first three rounds of the June entry draft and $24 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to play with this summer — and that’s before the expected rise of the ceiling, which could go up between $3-5 million. Some of that money will go towards new contracts for the likes of restricted free agents Ryan Spooner, Kevin Hayes, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei. 

The leftover cap room? Well, those Ilya Kovalchuk rumors will begin to heat up once his season ends in the KHL and who knows, maybe Rick Nash and Michael Grabner make a return to New York? Plus some of those seven early round picks and maybe one or two of their RFAs could be dangled as trade bait in exchange for impact players for next season. Add in the experience that Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, John Gilmour, Rob O’Gara and Neal Pionk have been getting these last few weeks and the wait for a playoff return may not be very long.

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

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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

The Buzzer: Halak stops 50 in shutout

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Players of the Night:

Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders: The New York Rangers kept coming. And coming. And coming. The Blueshirts put up 50 shots on Halak, but the veteran netminder shut the door on each and every one of them in a heroic shutout effort.

Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals: Ovie had a four-point game, scoring his league-leading 34th goal (his 592nd in his career) and helping out on three others, including both of Wilson’s goals. Wilson also added an assist for a three-point night. Add in Nicklas Backstrom‘s goal and assist and the Capitals top line had a nine-point night.

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: Barzal was instrumental in setting up all three Islanders goals. Furthermore, the rookie put himself in some elite company with his 60th, 61st and 62nd point of the season.

Marian Gaborik, Ottawa Senators and Dion Phaneuf, Los Angeles Kings: Both players made their debuts for their new teams after they were traded for each (and a couple other pieces) on Tuesday. Both ended up scoring a goal for their respective new teams.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Stopped 43 of 44 to help the Sharks get back to winning ways.

Highlights of the Night: 

Kucherov makes them all stand still:

Poor Henrik Lundqvist:

Matt Murray sprawlin’:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Penguins 3, Kings 1

Islanders 3, Rangers 0

Devils 5, Hurricanes 2

Senators 3, Sabres 2 (OT)

Lightning 4, Red Wings 1

Capitals 5, Wild 2

Flames 4, Predators 3

Ducks 3, Blackhawks 2

Coyotes 5, Canadiens 2

Golden Knights 4, Oilers 1

Sharks 4, Canucks 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Bergeron’s big night, Sens win again, Avalanche in a playoff spot

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Players of the Night: 

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Bergeron came into Saturday three points shy of 700 for his NHL career. He reached that mark in the first period, scoring twice and adding an assist as the Bruins put up five against the Carolina Hurricanes. He then put his stamp on the night, burying his hat trick goal in the second frame for good measure. Not bad, Patrice. Not bad.

Ryan Dzingel (and the rest of the Ottawa Senators, really): Dzingel had two goals in the game, giving him four over the past three games. Matt Duchene scored for the third time in two games and the Senators took down the best team in the NHL, a 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning after coming from behind for a 6-5 win on Friday night. Not too shabby on the back to back. The Sens blew a three-goal lead in this one as well.

Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars: The Dallas Duo each had three points as the Stars eased past the Edmonton Oilers 5-1.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Not only did he score a but goal, Giroux had three points to help the Flyers to a 6-3 defeat of the St. Louis Blues in Brayden Schenn‘s return to Philly.

Highlights of the Night:

It’s never too late to score a game-winner:

Two-on-one. Seguin and Radulov. Only one way this ends:

No video here, because this one doesn’t need any:

Factoids of the Night:

Henrik Lundqvist moved into eighth on the all-time win list with this save on a point-blank clapper in the shootout.

MISC:

Scores:

Flyers 6, Blues 3

Stars 5, Oilers 1

Bruins 7, Hurricanes 1

Maple Leafs 3, Canucks 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Lightning 3

Rangers 2, Coyotes 1

Avalanche 7, Wild 2

Flames 3, Ducks 2

Predators 4, Kings 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

18 going on 30: Habs’ prospect Fucale must be patient behind Price

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Being a goalie prospect with Carey Price entrenched in Montreal probably feels like trying to make headway in New Jersey during Martin Brodeur’s lengthy run (or doing the same with the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist now).

Canadiens prospect Zachary Fucale seems OK with the idea of being patient, at least according to what he told NHL.com on Thursday.

“My goal, my dream, my vision is to play in the NHL,” Fucale said. “That’s where I want to play. Every time I get to be in an NHL camp, that’s a chance to be up there. So my goal is to play in the NHL, whether I’m 18 or 30. That’s what I want to accomplish, I want to prove to the Montreal Canadiens that I can play.”

(Does anyone else picture “13 Going on 30” Photoshop scenarios after reading that quote? No? Fair enough …)

It’s an interesting scenario for Fucale, who turned 20 in May.

While Price definitely stands as a barricade to his goal of being the top guy – backup duty wouldn’t be as tough to come by – it’s clear the Canadiens organization will eventually give him a chance to prove himself.

Montreal selected Fucale with a second-round pick (36th overall) in 2013, so it’s not like Fucale is some obscure prospect.

One most easily imagines him making an impression as a backup before perhaps being traded somewhere to get a starting gig, but the young netminder is right in pointing out that things can change pretty quickly at the goalie position in the NHL.

Indeed, Price could probably relate to Fucale’s situation, as Jose Theodore was the guy in net when he was drafted back in 2005.

Ultimately, it’s wise for Fucale to take the “step by step” approach right now. Then again, does he really have a choice?