2007-05-11 / Sports

Despite Elimination, Rangers Feel Best Is Yet To Come

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist

By Joe McDonald
Sports Columnist

GREENBURGH, NY - As they met with management and took their , the New York Rangers looked back at what could have been and thought of what might be on Tuesday.

All in all, there was an air of optimism, as the Blueshirts took a giant step into making this franchise a contending team for years to come.

"We really felt that we stuck with the right philosophy coming out of the lockout and what we needed to do to redefine the team, what type of player at least in order to do that," said coach Tom Renney.

"The latest installment is one that suggests disappointment, no question about that, but also continues along that flow of becoming better and a champion. That continues to be the ultimate objective."

A second round loss is a nice move in the right direction, but the Rangers knew that more could have been on the way, since they had the momentum and talent to beat the President's Trophy winning Buffalo Sabres. But, a few bad breaks and some last second misfortune changed promise to defeat.

"My feeling is we still could have ands should have done better," said Brendan Shanahan, one of the teams few key free agents. "That's a goal for next year; the group that comes back with a couple of key additions. If the players treat this as a stepping stone and not as an arrival and work hard during the summer and really prepare for another big battle and difficult season the team should be in very good shape."

The Rangers did not dwell on the immediate past, even though Sean Avery did blame his performance on the team losing. Rather, they seemed content knowing they have a strong team going into next year, especially if general manager Glen Sather makes a few key signings.

Besides resigning Michael Nylander and Shanahan, plus securing their restricted free agents like Avery, Renney said a second line center might be a place they will look at when the free agent market opens on July 1.

"We're talking about three guys playing on a line without a centerman, a bona fide center," the coach said. "So, [the second line] had to manufacture as much as they possibly could with three wingers."

"Marty [Straka] spent significant time at center ice but it's not his primary position. As you try to melt three sort of styles together to have success without a bona fide pivot to help you do that, I think it has an effect on people's performance."

Fortunately, the Rangers may have some choices to look at when the market bell rings. Buffalo centers Daniel Briere ad Chris Drury are unrestricted, as is Devils' top forward Scott Gomez. Although the Rangers couldn't speak about the Sabres, because they are still playing in the playoffs, Gomez' name was of interest.

"I think Gomez would be [a choice]," Avery said. "I certainly wouldn't mind playing with him, that's for sure. That would be big. That's where the depth comes in. I think that's the difference."

"As much as I can handle playing 18 minutes a night, a guy like that is a second line center or first line center, that's his job. Then you just throw me on the wing to clean up all the dirty stuff."

Even if the Rangers open the wallet for a Briere, Drury or Gomez, don't expect wholesale changes to occur. Outside of Nylander and Shanahan, only Jed Ortmeyer, Jason Strudwick and Kevin Weekes remain unrestricted. And while Ortmeyer will probably be back, the other two won't.

Also, expect Henrik Lundqvist to probably sign a long-term deal, which will put more pressure on the salary cap. However, with the number going up to around $48 million next year, there will be room for another star name.

No matter what happens, the Rangers do know they are pretty close to being a championship team.

"There's not such a huge hole in it, speaking of between the teams," captain Jaromir Jagr said. "When you watch the hockey - any sport - its one mistake, one game that can change everything."

"It happened to us against Buffalo, Game 5, and it happened to San Jose, in Game 4, when they had a lead, 2-1 and Detroit scored with 30 seconds left to tie the game, won in overtime, and since then they didn't lose a game. The momentum has changed. I believe we are a good enough team to do it."

Notes: Contradicting an Internet report, Marty Straka said he will not have surgery on his upper arm, saying the doctors recommended rest for the forward…Avery said he may go under the knife on for his left wrist, but not decision has been made…Renney said Karel Rachunek [knee] and Michal Rozsival [shoulder and knee] may also have procedures.

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