It was a little after 11:15 p.m. last Friday, roughly a half hour after the 2014-15 New York Rangers' season came to an end with a 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, when Alain Vigneault was asked to examine the Presidents' Trophy winner's needs for the future.
The wound was too fresh, the pain all too real for the coach to execute a thorough postmortem.
"I'm not going to get into that," Vigneault said."We [were] one period away from going to the Stanley Cup Finals. Our guys competed real hard, battled hard and this is really disappointing to us, to our fans, so we're going to take a little bit of time to contemplate our next season."
Vigneaultand Rangers brass willponder a campaign in which they set franchise highs for wins and points while ranking third in the NHL in goals per game with an average of 3.02.
But the high octane offense dried up in the playoffs. The Rangers finished the playoffs ranked seventh in the NHL with a 2.37 goals per game average. A deeper examination reveals that the Rangers scored 24 goals in the 12 games against Pittsburgh and Washington in the first two rounds. In the Conference Final, the Rangers scored 21 goals, but only four in the four games at the Garden.
"I think everyone's puzzled. We're not very sure what happened," Derek Stepan said. "Just the way it went. We just weren't able to generate any offense [in Game 7]."
So the question that must be asked is: How much longer can the Rangers be considered a Stanley Cup contender?
It can be argued that the decade following the 2004-05 season-canceling lockout has been the Rangers' Golden Age. One Stanley Cup Finals appearance. One Eastern Conference Championship. Three Eastern Conference Final appearances. Nine playoff appearances in 10 years.
"I like the consistency," Henrik Lundqvist said. "I like what we're doing as a group."
Still, for all of their regular season and postseason success, the Rangers still have not won a Cup since the epochal 1993-94 season. And the current iteration is growing older.
Windows close. Eras end. Dynasties crumble.
As the off-season looms, the Rangers, like the remaining 29 NHL franchises, will have player personnel decisions to make. According to industry website CapFriendly.com, the Rangers have 15 players signed to $59.5 million worth of contracts. Should the cap ceiling be set at $71 million, as has been speculated, the Rangers would have $11.5 million in available cap space.
At least $6 million would be earmarked for Stepan, the top line center who is a restricted free agent. Top six forward J.T. Miller and bottom six forward Jesper Fast are on entry level deals, so look for General Manager Glen Sather to offer both bridge deals. Third line wing Carl Hagelin is a restricted free agent. Martin St. Louis, James Sheppard and Matt Hunwick are all unrestricted free agents. St. Louis is 39 and noticeably slowed during the playoffs. Sheppard was acquired from San Jose at the Trade Deadline to be a depth forward. Hunwick was solid as the seventh defenseman, and only earned $600,000 according to industry site Spotrac.com.
Then there is backup goaltender Cam Talbot, who essentially saved the Rangers' season after Henrik Lundqvist missed six weeks after being diagnosed with a strained blood vessel due to being struck in the throat by a shot off the stick of Brad Malone in the 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at the Garden on Jan. 31.
The 27-year old Talbot finished the season with a 21-9-4 mark in 36 games, while compiling a .926 save percentage and 2.21 goals against average. Talbot will make $1.45 million next year per CapFriendly.com, and may attract attention from NHL teams who need a young, cost-controlled No. 1 goaltender.
Still, the majority of the core will return intact.
"I told the group, 'We're a great group and we're right there,'" Lundqvist said. "The last three, four yeas I think we are one of the team that played the most games in the playoffs. We're right there. It's a great group to be a part of and we worked extremely hard. This year was not enough and we were so close. That's what makes it special to go through this, but it's also extremely tough when you don't come up with the result.
"We were right there. We worked really long and hard to get here to get here and be in this position. To come up short, it's tough. I think we all feel at leas that we put everything we had, and we really did everything we could to try to make it back to the Finals."