- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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There are some that would argue the Rangers made it deeper into the playoffs than they should have considering what was an otherwise pretty middling, underwhelming performance in the 2013 season. A year that fell well short of expectations ended with a hasty second-round exit and a slew of unanswered questions. Here are the top five to consider in the offseason:
1. John Tortorella’s future with the team?
Know this: John Tortorella will be back as head coach when the team reconvenes in September, and no one will be looking forward more to the resumption of his notoriously difficult training camp than him. Not having that few weeks -- critical ones in which he prides himself on being able to cultivate a tough mindset for his team -- hurt the Rangers in a lockout-shortened season. But every other coach dealt with those limitations, too. Tortorella is not on the hot seat now with all the mitigating factors in the Rangers’ second-round exit, but he will be under the microscope next season if his team falters in a similar fashion as 2013. The fiery coach admitted his own shortcomings in failing to coax the most out of his top offensive players, and he’ll have almost four bitter months to ruminate on the how and why. Tortorella can't afford to let his stubbornness impede what the team now needs, which is a revamped style of play better suited to the personnel. His star players need room to maneuver and the leash to get creative. Whether he allows that to happen could very well determine his future with the organization.
2. Brad Richards buyout?
The bold move to scratch the 33-year-old alternate captain for the last two games of the season only intensified speculation that Richards’ future with the Rangers may be in jeopardy. The struggling center, who watched from the TD Garden press box as his team was eliminated, suffered a disastrous decline that few would’ve imagined when he inked a nine-year, $60 million deal as the premier free agent two summers ago.
Plummeting from first-line center to healthy scratch in a matter of months, Richards has become a prime candidate for a compliance buyout and it has more to do with another crucial factor other than the utter deterioration of his game. In fact, the Rangers would likely have to consider exercising a buyout on the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner even if he’d have played like one. Why? The “cap advantage recapture rule” in the new collective bargaining agreement that penalizes teams for any cap benefit gained in a long-term deal in the event of a player’s early retirement.
The Rangers would be facing whopping penalties should Richards not play out the remaining seven years of his contract. Should he retire in the offseason of 2017, the Rangers would be hit with a $5.66 million penalty, $8.5 million in 2018 and a dizzying $17 million in 2019. Plus, if the Rangers don’t utilize the buyout this summer, they run the risk of Richards sustaining an injury next season. A team cannot buy out an injured player.
3. What to do with ailing power play?
Put plainly, the Rangers' woeful power-play unit, just 4-for-44 (9.1%) was absolutely dreadful in the playoffs. For much of the regular season, too. In fact, this has been something that has hamstrung the team for years as they have searched, to no avail, for a right-handed defenseman with a big shot to quarterback their power play. That will be one of the team’s top priorities this summer, since the team’s current personnel seems incapable of turning things around themselves. The Rangers are one team that also does not employ a power-play coach -- Mike Sullivan is Tortorella’s only assistant -- so perhaps a specialist could be brought in to help.
4. Offseason needs?
Beyond the glaring need for a top-four defenseman, preferably one with a big, right-handed shot that can lead the power-play, the Rangers need to address their lack of depth up the middle. Derick Brassard turned out to be an absolute gem after coming to New York in a trade at the deadline in April, but they need to upgrade from their current crop of centermen. Considering Richards could very well be bought out and Brian Boyle had a disappointing season, the Rangers need to find some help in that area. Washington’s Matt Hendricks may be an option, but the Rangers may choose to address this via trade instead. Considering the acquisition of John Moore, the Rangers could entertain the option of parlaying young blue-liner Michael Del Zotto for a talented young center while continuing JT Miller and Oscar Lindberg’s development from within the organizaion. The Rangers will also have some time to consider how to make up for the loss fo the middle-of-the-lineup guys whose absence was so conspicuous during the regular season. Think versatile, rugged, hard-nosed players like Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko.
5. Will Marc Staal be healthy next season?
The loss of cornerstone defenseman Marc Staal to a harrowing eye injury was a devastating one for the Rangers, who deeply missed his strong, steadying presence particularly in the playoffs. After taking a puck to the eye in March, Staal missed 27 games of the regular season and all but one during the playoffs as he battled lingering vision issues. Though Staal is expected to return to health, his progress to this point has to be concerning to a Rangers team that considers him the true anchor of their blue line and one of the most vital components of the team’s core group of players. Remember, the Rangers are already without promising young defenseman Michael Sauer, whose career appears to be in question after he missed the entire season with issues stemming from a concussions sustained in December of 2011. The Rangers need Staal back or else they are facing a major void on their defense -- a gaping hole that would be extremely difficult to fix.
61dPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald