I'm sure you all saw the tweet from @nyrangers yesterday where the team thanked Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, and Benoit Pouliot for their contributions to the Rangers franchise--in particular for their roles in helping the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final this past spring. Trust me when I say the sentiments were heartfelt from up and down the entire organization.
All four of those players will be missed. Boyle was a true heart and soul Ranger the previous five years, a growing leader in the room, and a must-quote in the locker room from a media perspective. Richards helped this franchise turn the corner into a legitimate NHL contender with his impactful leadership and on-ice play while wearing the Blueshirt the past three years. Stralman, also a Ranger for three seasons, transformed himself from a spare part to a vital second-pair d-man playing 20 minutes a night last year. And Pouliot made his mark by producing a career-best year in his lone season on Broadway, a part of the Rangers most consistent forward line in 2013-14.
As much as fans, coaches, front office personnel, and media types will lament the fact that all four of these regulars from the 2014 Eastern Conference championship team have moved on, cashing in on their UFA status this summer, the bottom line from an organizational point of view is to keep things moving forward. Hockey is not just a game in the National Hockey League, it's a business. And that's what we are seeing first-hand this summer, both from the players' side and the team's side of things.
However, this is nothing new, and certainly not anything the Rangers were not prepared for. In the world of professional sports, in this case hockey, you are constantly looking forward as an organization. To that end the Rangers had a plan in place when free agency kicked in Tuesday, knowing exactly where they stood against the salary cap and with the knowledge that important restricted free agents Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, and John Moore need to be re-signed.
The big-fish signing was veteran defenseman Dan Boyle on Tuesday. He will fill many of--though not all--of Stralman's minutes, and will be expected to jump start the oft-maligned Rangers power play. Tanner Glass was brought in after spending the past two years with the Penguins and will bring grit, tenacity, solid penalty killing skills, and an edge to the Rangers group of forwards. And perhaps most importantly--on ice and in the dressing room--Dominic Moore was resigned and pulled off the UFA market to once again be a valuable multi-purpose forward, face-off specialist, and penalty-killer extraordannaire.
What the team did next over the past two days was bring in a bevy of depth players--either ones who will provide insurance down in Hartford or battle for the remaining spots with the varsity. Three of those signees are defensemen--29 year-old Matt Hunwick, 28 year-old Mike Kostka, and 25 year-old Steven Kampfer. All have some NHL experience under the belts and all move the puck well and have some offensive upside. They will battle youngsters Dylan McIlrath, Conor Allen, and Mat Bodie on the Rangers depth chart in what shapes up to be an intriguing training camp battle, and really a battle that will carry on all season long as the players jockey for positioning on the depth chart.
Up front the Rangers signed a pair of 28 year-olds in Chris Mueller and Chris Bourque. Mueller is a face-off specialist, one who split 2013-14 between the NHL and AHL in the Dallas Stars organization, winning a Calder Cup with Texas this past spring. Bourque, older brother of Rangers prospect Ryan and son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray, has won three Calder Cups in his career and has been a point-per-game player over his AHL career, though with limited NHL success.
Mueller and Bourque will join a mix that includes J.T. Miller, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, and Ryan Haggerty, among others, vying for spots with the Rangers and in the organizational depth chart. Plus assistant GM Jeff Gorton said the other day that the Rangers will be exploring all other options, including the trade market, to possibly fill any holes at the forward position.
Finally 28 year-old Cedric Desjardins provides some better depth at the goaltending position where the Rangers went through five or six different goalies in Hartford a year ago. Assuming Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot are both healthy for the long haul, Desjardins--who has some NHL experience--will get the majority of the run with the Wolf Pack and will provide a better safety net should a need arise at the NHL level.
After losing four key contributors as they did Tuesday--five including the trade of Derek Dorsett, the Rangers will need others to step up in a big way this upcoming season for the club to continue its recent run of success which has seen a first-place finish, two trips to the Eastern Conference Final, and a Stanley Cup Final appearance over the previous three seasons.
These off-season moves may be lacking in sex appeal from a fan perspective, but the competition level has been raised, for sure, looking ahead to training camp. Somebody--check that, the entire team--will need step forward and improve their play to fill the voids that have been created. Players who had big seasons last year need to play even better. Youngsters need to prove they belong in the NHL. Newcomers have to help the team improve in their areas of expertise.
It's all about moving forward.