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As Cup dream dies ... who stays, who goes?

6/16/2014

NEW YORK -- While the Los Angeles Kings hammer out the details of their continuing celebration, plot out a parade route and figure out how many cases of champagne to order as they toast their second Stanley Cup championship in three years, the New York Rangers face much tougher decisions.

In the aftermath of their season-ending loss Friday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, the Rangers will be forced to act quickly on a number of pressing issues confronting the club in the weeks ahead.

Who will stay? Who will go?

The most immediate of those questions is what general manager Glen Sather and the rest of the Rangers brass wish to do in regard to their veteran center and de facto captain Brad Richards.

The team has one existing compliance buyout to exercise, with many assuming it is a foregone conclusion that the team will use it on the 34-year-old Richards. This has less to do with Richards' subpar performance during the team’s finals series against the Kings, though the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner was dropped to the fourth line in the final two games due to his poor play.

The most prohibitive strike against Richards is the significant financial penalty the team will incur should he retire before the expiration of his nine-year, $60 million deal that runs through 2020. Those penalties are spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement, via the controversial cap recapture rule.

Richards wants to remain a Ranger, and his emergence as the heart-and-soul leader of the team during a surprising and successful run this spring might have temporarily helped his case, but a dispassionate, logical look at the matter will likely result in the team parting ways with him soon. The Rangers have a small window in which to make this decision: from 48 hours following the Stanley Cup final to June 30, so as to allow the player time to seek new suitors come free agency July 1.

Should Sather cut ties with Richards, it will not be an indictment of his play during a disastrous 2013 lockout-shortened season or a difficult five-game set against the Kings. It will be a business decision, nothing more, nothing less. And know this: Richards stands to gain financially should he hit the open market, as he will certainly garner interest from a number of teams looking to add depth and experience down the middle.

Next on the agenda will be the question of what to do with Rick Nash. The marquee winger, acquired in a blockbuster deal in 2012, was largely ineffective during the playoffs, especially when the team needed timely production most. Friday’s game was the sixth straight in which he was held off the score sheet.

Earlier in the postseason, Nash went through a 14-game goal drought. It is not for lack of effort -- the 29-year-old winger was engaged and assertive in trying to make a difference during the series against the Kings -- but the lack of scoring is jarring nonetheless, especially considering his $7.8 million annual salary. In two years with the Rangers, the two-time 40-goal scorer and two-time Olympic Gold medalist has scored only four goals in 37 playoff games.

The Rangers could always choose to buy him out instead, though that seems unlikely given Richards’ position as the prime candidate. Also, Nash has a full no-move clause, so he has complete control over his fate. Still, it is worth wondering whether he might see a trade from New York as a reprieve from the unrelenting scrutiny he has endured this spring -- sometimes deserved, sometimes not.

And considering the trade market developing in the weeks before the draft, which will be held the final weekend in June in Philadelphia, teams will be active in working the phones. With elite centers such as Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Ryan Kesler on the trading block, the Rangers might want to listen to any offers that would ship Nash elsewhere.

Sather also must decide whether to re-sign or let go some key players.

Among the most interesting of these is second-pair defenseman Anton Stralman, who was arguably the team’s best player on the back end this spring. Stralman, who has transformed from a training camp castoff (New Jersey sent him home back in 2011 without a contract) to one of the team’s most reliable defensemen, earned himself a nice pay raise with his stout play this spring.

Stralman is one of several impending unrestricted free agents who positioned themselves well. Rugged winger Brian Boyle, a critical member of the team’s productive fourth line and a dogged penalty-killer, will be coveted by a team seeking size and toughness. Benoit Pouliot, all those boneheaded offensive zone penalties aside, had a standout year.

The Rangers need to make it a priority to extend defenseman Marc Staal at the earliest opportunity - July 1 - for he is a cornerstone Blueshirts player and as solid of a leader as they come.

And then there’s the crop of restricted free agents, including Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and John Moore.

There are lots of decisions ahead of Sather, and none of them is easy. Who will stay? Who will go?