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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

Kuznetsov scores OT winner as Capitals down Rangers

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The Washington Capitals have chosen a fine time to get hot.

The Caps entered Wednesday with a five-point cushion on the top spot in the Metropolitan Division thanks to a four-game winning streak coupled with eight wins in their last 10 contests.

And by nights’ end, those numbers both increased to seven, five and nine of their past 10, respectively, after a late comeback to force overtime and a quick winner in the extra frame in a 3-2 win against the New York Rangers on Wednesday Night Rivalry, sweeping the home-and-home series.

Indeed, the Caps needed a big goal late to thwart what was looking like a 2-1 decision going New York’s way.

But Lars Eller was having none of that, producing the tying goal with 65 seconds remaining in regulation.

Eller’s goal forced overtime, and if Henrik Lundqvist didn’t appear properly defeated on Eller’s late equalizer, he sure did after Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s winner just 38 seconds into free hockey.

Who could blame him? Kuznetsov’s goal was a stunner and reversed the Rangers fortunes before they could catch their breaths.

The Capitals didn’t look especially special on the night but did what needed to be done to pick up the win. Braden Holtby, who has struggled in a mighty was lately, turned aside 35 of 37 shots for the win — just the second time he’s allowed two goals or fewer since Feb. 9.

The charity point and the loss meant nil to the Rangers, who are already eliminated from the playoffs.

But rookie Lias Andersson picked up his first NHL assist, two nights after picking up his first NHL goal in a 4-2 loss to the Caps.

New York’s season has turned into an evaluation camp for their final few games.

Andersson saw 12:20 of ice-time while fellow rookie Filip Chytil played 14:40, ending with a minus-1 and four shots on goal.

Washington can clinch a playoff spot providing the Philadelphia Flyers lose in any fashion to the Colorado Avalanche.

Currently, Philly is leading 2-1 in the second period.


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

NHL on NBCSN: Ovechkin continues pursuit of 50 as Capitals visit Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Monday night with the Washington Capitals visiting the New York Rangers. You can catch all of the action at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

The Washington Capitals have an opportunity to tighten their hold on the top spot in the Metropolitan Division on Monday night.

The Caps, winners of three straight, sit three points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and will use up their game in hand over the Penguins, who are idle on Monday.

The focus of this one could shift to Alex Ovechkin and his pursuit of the 50-goal plateau. Ovi comes into the game sitting on 44 goals, six back of the milestone. With seven games remaining, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The Great 8 hasn’t scored in this past two games, and he’s one goal ahead of Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine in the Rocket Richard race.

“Everything is in my hands,” Ovechkin told the Washington Post on Sunday about the race to 50. “Of course as you get closer and closer, you want to get it done.”

If Ovi can do it, he’d become just the third player in NHL history with eight seasons of 50 goals or more, joining Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky.

For Ovi to go on a late-season run, as the Post’sIsabelle Khurshudyan pointed out, would also go a long way to helping the Caps keep up their winning ways in the final two weeks of the season.

[NHL Playoff Push: Panthers, Avalanche in search of key wins Monday]

The Rangers aren’t making the playoffs, so the rest of the season is a chance to give their future some NHL looks.

To that end, New York called up first-round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil from Hartford of the American Hockey League on Sunday, with the New York Post reporting that the duo will play out the rest of the regular season in the Rangers lineup.

“I think I’ve improved my game,” Chytil told NYRangers.com. “Everything is different here than in Europe. I’ve had to adjust my style for the U.S. It didn’t take so long, so I’m glad. All season has been very good for me. I’m learning in every game, so that’s most important.”

Andersson joined Hartford after playing with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League this season but an injury brought him to New York to rehab. Once healed, he didn’t return to his native Sweden, opting to head to the AHL.

“I’m more confident now than I was just a month ago,” Andersson told the team’s website. “It’s getting better and better every day.”

The duo could make some history if both are in the lineup on Monday.

Per the Rangers:

If both Andersson and Chytil play, they’d become the first pair of teenagers to play in the same game with the Rangers since Dec. 19, 1974 (Dave Maloney, who was playing in his second career NHL game, and Ron Greschner).


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

Rangers getting a good look at the future, despite playoff disappointment

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Silver linings for teams far off the playoff line are few and far between at this time of the year.

But if there is one that can be taken for any team looking at re-tooling or rebuilding for next season, it’s the ability to take a look at the future crop against NHL adversaries.

The New York Rangers are one of these teams. They declared themselves open for business prior to the trade deadline and dealt away some big names, including Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh, for some younger talent.

They’re also facing a challenge with aging goaltender Henrik Lundqvist who, as great as he is, won’t win the battle with Father Time.

Needing to fill holes at several positions, the Rangers have been able to take a good look at a couple of promising prospects, including what may well be their future between the pipes.

New York has played rookie Alexandar Georgiev six times and owns a 3-2-0 record since he played his first NHL game on Feb. 22. Despite picking up the loss, Georgiev allowed just two goals on 40 shots for a .950 save percentage.

He’d give up four in his next start the following night, but since then has amassed three straight wins, including a 37-save performance on Wednesday against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He’ll be called upon again on Saturday, another test and another chance for evaluation.

The inital analysis is promising. Georgiev is sitting on a very respectable .929 save percentage in his brief time in the NHL and he’s already turning heads around the league.

NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley’s wrote that Georgiev is taking after the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky — some pretty good company.

Blueshirt Banter’s Tom Urtz Jr. took a really deep dive in Georgiev, concluding by calling him a “pleasant surprise.”

There’s a lot to like about him, his potential is visible, and the circumstances are set up in his favor for him to be able to prove himself more in an extended setting next season,” Urtz Jr. wrote.

Shifting to the men in the rearguard, Neal Pionk is making the most the big minutes he’s been getting over the past 17 games, and he’s starting to produce.

Pionk is on a three-game point streak with five assists during that span.

Also 22 and also undrafted, Pionk, like Georgiev, is showing real promise on defense.

“He competes hard and he’s got a good skill set,” Vigneault told NYRangers.com on Friday. “He can make that good pass and there’s no doubt that in his college and prior to that, he was considered an offensive defenseman. He’d join the rush and was good on the power play, so there is some upside there with him. We need to continue to work at his game and continue to improve it.”

The Rangers appear to have some budding young talent and an array of players to build around with the likes Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov and Jimmy Vesey — assuming they sign the latter two who are set to become RFAs at the end of this season.

And perhaps most importantly, the Rangers, who have long held the distinction as a team where old players go to get older, seem to finally be favoring youth over past-their-prime talent.

That’s good news for Rangers fans.


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