Rangers have foundation set for sustained postseason success

Seasons like the one the Rangers just completed don’t happen often.

No one had to tell Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad that, after their 2-1 loss to the Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday night in Tampa that ended the Rangers’ astonishing — and captivating — playoff run.

It was all over their faces. It was there in their loss for words. Item hung over them as they walked out of Amalie Arena side by side.

The two longest tenured Rangers were so close they could taste it. After four straight seasons of missing the playoffs as the club rebuilt, not including their qualifying-round exit in the 2020 bubble playoffs, Kreider and Zibanejad finally got back to the Stanley Cup tournament that every hockey player dreams of. And hey, they came two wins away from the Cup Final before the defending back-to-back champions ousted them.

The Rangers have a foundation in place to return to the postseason regularly.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

However, a lot has to go right for a team to get to that point. A lot did fall into place for the Rangers, who turned heads in the NHL with a tremendous regular-season showing and an inspiring playoff performance that featured two series comebacks.

But who’s to say it can’t happen again?

The Rangers put the pieces together this season. President and general manager Chris Drury effectively built upon the foundation that was laid out for him by his predecessor Jeff Gorton, bringing in glue guys, some grit to balance out the skill and a head coach with the right temperament and the exact coaching style this team needed in Gerard Gallant.

“When I got here, I knew it was a talented group, a skill group,” Gallant said this postseason. “I knew there were a lot of young guys in our group, and all I tried to do with our coaching staff is to get them to try and believe in themselves. Play the game the right way and good things happen.”

And that’s exactly what Gallant did. The Rangers were once a team that couldn’t get out of their own way. With so much skill throughout the lineup and an otherworldly goaltender in Igor Shesterkin, the base for success has been there for a couple years.

Igor Shesterkin makes a save during the Rangers' Game 6 loss to the Lightning.
Igor Shesterkin makes a save during the Rangers’ Game 6 loss to the Lightning.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Now, this team believes it can win. It has a winning culture and attitude in place. And now the players have the experience to do something with it.

Of course, the offseason will inevitably bring roster changes. The Rangers won’t look exactly the same in 2022-23 as they did this season. This is where it could get tricky, especially with the special locker room dynamic the Rangers have. It’s still a business, but being in the early stages of consistent success needs to be handled with care.

There’s still a question mark hovering over the Rangers’ second-line center spot with Ryan Strome approaching an unrestricted free agency. The ‘A’ on his jersey is there for a reason, and one of his best friends on the team is the organization’s highest-paid player in Artemi Panarin.

The three forward trade-deadline acquisitions — Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Tyler Motte — seemed to complete the team in certain areas. Drury will have to decide who to prioritize as all three approaches unrestricted free agency. Kaapo Kakko is set to become a restricted free agent, and after the 2019 second-overall pick was scratched in Game 6 Saturday night, his standing with the club is suddenly murky. Plus, Kevin Rooney, an underrated player who played a key role in the Rangers’ success this season, is also about to become a UFA.

Kaapo Kako
Kaapo Kakko’s future with the Rangers is all of a sudden murky.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

We may even see Vitali Kravtsov in a Rangers jersey again. The Russian forward, who declined an AHL assignment at the start of this season, signed a one-year, one-way $875,000 contract on Sunday.

One thing is for certain: The Rangers have their No. 1 goaltender. Shesterkin is just getting started, and his 62-29-7 record with a 2.31 goals-against average and .928 save percentage over 100 games in parts of three seasons is as promising as it gets. He can — and probably will — backstop the Rangers for playoff runs to come.

Seasons like this one are rare — but they’re always possible when you have belief, experience and a goalie like Shesterkin.

“Great goalie, great season,” Jacob Trouba said. “His numbers from him, everything, speak for themselves. He was the best player on our team and the biggest, most important player on our team. I don’t think anybody’s going to dispute that in the room or outside the room. He’s a special goalie.”

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