It's tough to criticize a hockey team immediately after they've been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially when that team made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals to beat out any and all expectations set for them at the beginning of the season. This is why I waited a day to sort of spill my feelings out on the blog about the hockey we've just watched for the past two months; specifically the past two weeks against the New Jersey Devils.
The Blueshirts have every right to be proud of themselves and walk away with their heads held high after their 2011-12 campaign, which ended just two games short of the Stanley Cup Finals, and that's something I was quick to point out in Friday's postgame. However, there are reasons why they did not reach their goal this season, and why the front office will be scrambling to make some changes over the summer to better prepare this team for a Cup run.
I'm going to be quite blunt when I say this: The Rangers did not deserve to be in the Stanley Cup Finals. Before you jump down my throat, please here me out.
Was there a single game of the twenty that the Rangers were a part of in the postseason that you felt you were watching the 2012 Stanley Cup Champions? Was there a game in which the Rangers looked like the best team in hockey and near unstoppable? Was there a game in these playoffs that the Rangers dominated their opponent for a complete sixty minutes?
There's a good chance you answered "no" to all three of those questions, or at least two of the three. As much as some fans will be reluctant to admit this, it's the truth and it became more and more clear the further the Rangers ventured. And, by all means, this is not a bad thing. The Rangers were the youngest team in the playoffs, yet still made it to the final four and came two games short of the final two. The journey was well worth it just for the experience put under the belt of the franchise and their younger players.
But still, it was rather obvious that this hockey team was no powerhouse prepared to steamroll opponents like the Los Angeles Kings. This hockey team was not going to oust an opponent with its depth or skill. They planned to outwork their opponent, which can only be fully effective for so long because of the fatigue factor that comes into play during the postseason.
Plain and simple, the Rangers were exhausted by the time they reached the Devils and the Conference Finals, and there was no way, at that point, they were going to find a way to match the depth of their cross-river rivals. The Devils, I don't think, are given enough credit for how solid of a hockey club they actually are, which is something I noted in my series preview before Game 1. They have one of the more deep offensive lineups in the entire National Hockey League.
Meanwhile, the offensively challenged Rangers struggled to generate a consistent forecheck, challenge opposing goalies or score three or more goals throughout the playoffs. Their most consistent forward on a nightly basis had to be rookie Chris Kreider, because the top guys were anything but consistent in the playoffs. Marian Gaborik was never the threat that Alex Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk were for their respective teams. Brad Richards played arguably the worst six games of his life in the past series against the Devils. Derek Stepan scored just one goal in 20 playoff games. This is unacceptable and killed the Rangers' chances of going all the way.
When you break it down series by series, the Rangers arguably wouldn't have gotten through the first round without Brian Boyle's production, and the same could be said of Chris Kreider's in the second round. There's nothing wrong with those guys being the ones to step up, but when you're relying on a rookie and a grinder to carry you offensively, it's going to be a real battle to reach the sacred sixteen wins needed to bring home some hardware.
Looking at the Devils, they had four functioning lines that their head coach rolled through without having to favorite any one trio. Their fourth line, at times, was more effective than their first. The Rangers, meanwhile, weren't get much of anything from their top two lines, let alone their bottom two. They had no answer for the depth of the Devils, and that was the cause of their eventual downfall.
This, in turn, makes GM Glen Sather's objective for the offseason quite clear. The Rangers need to rid themselves of some dead weight in the offensive lineup and replace it with productive scorers. John Mitchell, Brian Boyle, Brandon Dubinsky, Mike Rupp and maybe even Ruslan Fedotenko are all fair game. All five of those players, by no coincidence, are depth players in the bottom six. I'm perfectly fine with the top two lines, because those will continue to grow though youth and experience. The core offense is set and built. The surrounding depth, however, should be torn up and rebuilt if this team wants to go for it all in the coming seasons.
Now whether that is by adding from within the organization or reaching from outside is the decision of Mr. Sather. But either way, the offensive depth of the New York Rangers will be the main focus of the offseason, and those last six games against the Devils are living proof as to why.