Rangers need major shakeup this summer to avoid history repeating itself after conference final loss to Panthers

Rangers Mika Zibanejad
New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) kneels on the ice after his team lost Game 6 to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A Presidents’ Trophy is nice. So are new franchise records for wins (55) and points (114) but at the end of the day, the final puzzle piece for the New York Rangers remains elusive. 

The Blueshirts’ season ended late Saturday night in Sunrise, FL following a 2-1 loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Florida Panthers — a clearly superior team returning to the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight season. Paul Maurice’s relentless, organized side outworked and overwhelmed the Rangers, who were nothing short of pedestrian across the final two games of their season.

They did not score an even-strength goal in Games 5 and 6. A lack of offensive attack in 5-on-5 play plagued them all season — they were mediocre, at best, in that department — but it was exacerbated in this series when their top-tier power play dried up, going 1-for-15 across the six games. 

Their established stars were practically no-shows, too. Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin scored just one goal apiece while Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox did not find the back of the net. Look no further into why the Rangers did not score more than two goals in Games 4, 5, and 6.

Such struggles put further pressure on the steady shoulders of goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who was brilliant once again but is saddled with an unfair series loss. He faced 49 more shots than Panthers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky in the series and only allowed two more goals, saving 186 of the 200 shots he faced for a sterling .930 save percentage. 

Help was limited and at times non-existent from his defense, which was no more evident than on the Panthers’ opening goal in Game 6. Florida forward Sam Bennett collected the puck at the Rangers’ blue line with teammate Evan Rodrigues mere feet away on the left boards. Rather than play the puck, New York defenseman Jacob Trouba puzzlingly attempted to throw a hip check on Rodrigues, which would have been an interference penalty had he made decent contact. Instead, the out-of-position blueliner whiffed and the Panthers’ duo played a 1-2 before Bennett sniped a wrister to put the shots ahead with 48.5 seconds to go in the first period.

New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) shakes hands with Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, right, after the Panthers won Game 6 to win the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

That kind of play from a player advertised as a heart-and-soul leader sparks flashbacks to the sort of lackadaisical play exhibited by the Rangers for the majority of two decades while Henrik Lundqvist was manning the crease. The Hall-of-Famer anchored and often carried New York to the playoffs and even an Eastern Conference championship, but the pieces in front of him were never good enough to reach the mountaintop. 

Shesterkin could be resigned to the same fate if general manager Chris Drury does not address this offseason aggressively. 

Simply put, the Rangers do not have the “it” factor that can win them a championship and it is up to Drury to find it and move out of the shadow of a roster that still looks a lot like the one built by former GM Jeff Gorton.

Trouba does not produce at the level of a defenseman making $8 million per year considering his calling card is playing a physical game that toes the line of the sport’s legality.

The same can be debated about Zibanejad, who makes $8.5 million annually. Can he be the No. 1 center on a Stanley Cup-caliber team? Not with performances like what was seen in the conference final.

Kreider is also making $6.5 million per year and while his memorable hat trick in the second round clinched a series win over the Carolina Hurricanes, just one goal in the conference final leaves a sour taste in New Yorkers’ mouths.

Perhaps there is a lesson Drury can take from the Panthers. After they won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22 and were eliminated in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida GM Bill Zito traded away leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and one of his best defensemen in MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames for Matthew Tkachuk, who has become the focal point of back-to-back conference-winning teams. 

On the flip side and across town, Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello remained too loyal to the majority of a roster that made back-to-back Stanley Cup semifinals in 2020 and 2021. Over the last three years, they missed the playoffs once and were bounced from the first round twice.

The Rangers have more firepower than the Islanders, though. Fox and Shesterkin are generational talents at their position. Panarin is also becoming one of the most prolific playmakers the franchise has ever seen. A roster blow-up is not needed, but there has to be at least one big move needed to shake up a team that must find another level to meet their high expectations.

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