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Ten-step plan for Rangers to win Stanley Cup Final next year

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Martin St. Louis will be turning 40 and it may be time for the right winger to hang up the skates.Kathy Willens/AP

Martin St. Louis will be turning 40 and it may be time for the right winger to hang up the skates.

The Rangers’ elimination by shutout in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night was truly devastating because this team was built to win now — or, well, then.

The Blueshirts seemingly had the leaders to win their first Stanley Cup in 21 years, but when the clock struck triple zeroes, it wasn’t a complete shock that they had lost, either, given some serious weaknesses in the composition of Glen Sather’s team.

The pressure is enormous now to win a championship. Nothing else matters. The Rangers could start 20-0 next season and everyone’s attitude would be: So what? Show me the Cup.

That may not be fair, but that’s where they are. So here is a look at the big issues facing Sather in order for him to achieve the Blueshirts’ lofty — and only — goal.

1. KEEP WHAT’S YOURS

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently that he expects the salary cap to rise from $ 69 million to approximately $ 71 million next season, but he also said there is no evidence that concussions contribute to the degenerative brain disease of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), so who knows what he actually means. Next topic of debate: Is the world flat?

From the wealthy Rangers’ standpoint, the higher the salary cap rises, the better. Sather has four restricted free agents: center Derek Stepan, left wing Carl Hagelin and right wings J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast. Stepan (at only $ 3.075 million this past season) will be the priciest but most important to re-sign. Derick Brassard got $ 5 million a year last summer; Stepan should get more as the market increases.

Miller and Fast each made under $ 900,000 last season and will come in at modest numbers on the Rangers’ famous two-year “bridge” deals for second contracts to players drafted by the organization.

The potential conundrum here regards Hagelin, who has a $ 2.25 million salary now but could get much bigger money if he hits the open market. Hagelin’s speed, fitness, competitiveness and penalty killing are all invaluable and admirable. He is one of the team’s best forecheckers when he’s rolling.

But he isn’t an elite scorer, so it may be more prudent for Sather to re-sign Fast for a third-line role. That could mean an exit for Hagelin. The Rangers wouldn’t want that, but the numbers may add up that way.

2. CUT TIES

Sather has only three unrestricted free agents to decide on: right wing Martin St. Louis, center/wing James Sheppard and defenseman Matt Hunwick. No amount of a pay cut would justify re-signing St. Louis, who turns 40 on June 18. In all likelihood his stellar NHL career has skidded to an end. The good news is that it frees up $ 5.265 million to spend elsewhere. Maybe some of that goes to Hagelin. That’s an ideal scenario.

Sather should re-sign Hunwick. He is dependable and a team guy. He can skate and move the puck. He belonged in the lineup over Dan Boyle on most nights this season anyway. And Hunwick was a modest $ 600,000 cap hit.

Sheppard had one playoff goal in 13 games, equal to the amount St. Louis and Miller each scored in 19 matches, but he was brought here to win faceoffs and won just 40% in the postseason. They’ll take him or leave him.

3. GUARANTEE GORTON’S RISE

Rangers brass had to be doing jumping jacks when the Boston Bruins hired someone other than Jeff Gorton to run their organization. Gorton, Sather’s assistant general manager and a former interim Boston GM, is the Rangers’ go-to-guy in the front office and the heir apparent to Sather. Hopefully for Gorton’s sake he squeezed some extra dollars out of James Dolan to stick around on Broadway. Sather essentially has a lifetime contract and can stay as long as wants. He is a terrific personality and a giant in the sport, but Gorton needs to be guaranteed advancement and retained at any cost. The team hasn’t won yet, but has gotten close often in recent years in large part thanks to him.

Also, coach Alain Vigneault and his staff must continue to lead the way, and one wonders if that staff will remain the exact same. Have Ulf Samuelsson and/or Scott Arniel earned another look as a head coach? Stay tuned.

4. DAN AND THE DEFENSE

The Rangers lost because they were shut out twice at home in Games 5 and 7 by a Lightning team with shaky defense and an untested goaltender. The defense wasn’t the problem. It was the forwards. The Rangers will be formidable as long as they retain the core members of their blue line. They’ve done that, with Marc Staal (six more years), Dan Girardi (five more years), captain Ryan McDonagh (four more years) and Kevin Klein (three more years) all under contract long-term. Keith Yandle enters the final year of his deal, and presumably Sather and Gorton want to re-sign him, since he can move the puck, has a nasty side and proved he can produce in the playoffs.

The odd man out has to be Boyle, who is under contract for next season at that same heavy $ 4.5 million cap hit. Yandle can run the power play (though Alain Vigneault didn’t let him late in the playoffs), and Boyle didn’t compete at the requisite level until parts of March and some of the playoffs. Buying out the last year of Boyle’s contract will keep his cap hit on the books if he doesn’t waive his no-move clause and no other team will take him, but that shouldn’t prevent Sather from moving on from a failed experiment.

If another team were to take Boyle, that would free up significant money to use elsewhere. The Rangers have to get meaner on the back end. Perhaps they should take a look at 33-year-old Russian defenseman Anton Volchenkov, a former Devil who made only $ 1 million in Nashville this season.

5. YES, THEY CAM

Sather’s obvious move to acquire more punch would be to trade backup goaltender Cam Talbot, who turns 28 on July 5. Henrik Lundqvist, 33, was excellent again this postseason and has six years left on a contract paying him $ 8.5 million annually. Talbot proved this spring during Lundqvist’s injury absence that he deserves a chance to start, and there always are plenty of teams that need a goalie. Keep an eye on the Dallas Stars, though it’s unknown what they would give up. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are off-limits. Jason Spezza is expensive. Perhaps wingers Antoine Roussel, 25, and/or Ryan Garbutt, 29, a feisty forechecker, and draft picks would be on the table.

Obviously no one in the Ranger organization wants Talbot to go. He is under contract for one more season. But they’ve drafted a ton of goalies recently and if they truly want to win now, he’s the best trade bait they have.

6. GET PICKY

For the third straight year, Sather does not own a first-round pick because of his Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis trades. He will also sacrifice either his 2016 or 2017 first-rounder as part of this spring’s Yandle deadline deal, depending on how the Rangers finish next season. What does that mean? Win now or not, Sather has to stop trading these things. Sooner or later it’s going to catch up with the organization in a big way. Meanwhile, he should use the picks he has on restocking the defense for the long term. They signed their most recent first-round pick, 2012’s Brady Skjei, but their depth in the AHL defensively is nil.

7. HEY, HEY, HAYES

Rookie center Kevin Hayes was Sather’s biggest signing last offseason and he’s the biggest reason to hope for 2015-16, despite an invisible performance through most of the conference finals. Hayes is big, defensively sound player with skill and scoring ability who could make a major difference up front by taking the next step in his already precocious development. That will mean improving big-time on faceoffs and showing up consistently when the postseason arrives — he didn’t have a shot on goal in the Tampa series after Game 2. He was a major reason this team won the Presidents’ Trophy, with 17 goals and 45 points in 79 appearances, but he’ll have to be better next year.

8. A MATS REBOUND

Hopefully at Monday’s breakup day in Greenburgh, Mats Zuccarello can inform everyone that he’ll be healthy and ready to go come fall. When Zuccarello turns 28 in September, he needs to find a way to bounce back and best his career numbers from 2013-14 (19 goals and 59 points). This year, he was still a major part of things, but his numbers dipped slightly to 15 goals and 49 points, and he did not score in the first round against the Penguins. He needs to be one of the team’s best players or, as proven, the team can’t win. They will try to make additions up front, but it seems mainly that what you see now is what you’ll get.

9. TURN ON POWER

The power play scored twice in three straight games against the Lightning, but the presence of Boyle and St. Louis on the top unit siphoned all energy and momentum from the man advantage late. Stepan is a good power play asset but is best suited for the point. Yandle should captain the top man advantage with Stepan, Nash, Brassard and Zuccarello. Vigneault also should drop whatever his deal is with Klein’s role and put him on the power play somewhere. This is a guy Lundqvist said undoubtedly had the best shot on the team. What is he doing on the bench when the Rangers need shots most from their blue line?

The Rangers are extremely high on 2013 third-round pick Pavel Buchnevich, a Russian who represents their top forward prospect following Anthony Duclair’s trade to Arizona, but Buchnevich, who would upgrade the power play, this spring elected to sign a one-year extension to remain in the KHL and not come to the NHL until 2016. That will be great news in two years, but the Rangers want to win now. His absence is a blow.

10. THE KING, BRASS AND ….

Rick Nash had a couple eruptions in the conference finals against Tampa Bay, and Ryan McDonagh proved in 2013-14 that he could be the best player on the ice every night.

However the Rangers are still waiting for someone to join Lundqvist and Brassard in the category of players who won’t let their team lose and who play their best consistently on the biggest stages. Stepan was that guy often in this postseason, but when a team gets shut out by an average defense twice to be eliminated and fall short of where they were last year, there aren’t enough guys stepping up. Chris Kreider had seven goals in the playoffs and two in the series against Tampa Bay but was held without a point in the final three matches.

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