Over the next two weeks, sportsnet.ca will be taking an in-depth look at some key teams and the decisions facing them leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29. Today: New York Rangers.
General Manager: Jeff Gorton
2016 Draft Picks: 1st (none), 2nd (NYR), 3rd (NYR), 4th (ARIZ), 5th (NYR), 6th (NYR), 7th (NYR)
Cap space on deadline day: $4,852,238
Team mode: Get back to Stanley Cup final. And win it.
The New York Rangers abandoned caring about the future a while ago.
It started with the addition of veteran sniper Martin St. Louis two years ago, and then the Blueshirts, believing they were close to a Stanley Cup in Glen Sather’s final season at the helm, doubled down with defenceman Keith Yandle last winter.
Which brings us to the here and now, and a very, very challenging situation for rookie GM Jeff Gorton, who was handed a contending team by Sather but also one with dwindling options and some major concerns about next season and beyond.
Gorton now has three possible choices:
1. keep going down the same “win now no matter the cost” and add before the Feb. 29 trade with a high-priced rental.
2. Put this operation into neutral, don’t give up more futures and let this team do whatever it’s going to do as currently constituted.
3. recognize the cost of past player acquisitions and move a significant body or two out the door in order to fight another day.
The third choice is the least palatable for Gorton; it’s just not a New York kind of thing to do. The obvious transaction that would occur if he were to go down that road would be to trade away Yandle, who is an unrestricted free agent in July and a player due for a substantial salary increase (see Byfuglien, Dustin) that the Rangers wouldn’t be able to swallow even if they wanted to retain him beyond this season.
Yandle’s acquisition cost the Rangers winger Anthony Duclair and this year’s first rounder (lottery protected) or next year’s (unprotected), and there is that mindset that says Gorton simply can’t let him walk away as a UFA after paying so much to get him.
A complicating factor is the health of captain Ryan McDonagh, who likely suffered another concussion Thursday night in Toronto after being cold-cocked by an elbow from Leo Komarov that could see Komarov suspended.
McDonagh was just back for his second game after missing four games with a concussion caused by a Wayne Simmonds left cross to the jaw, something for which player safety boss Stephane Quintal decided Simmonds would not be subjected to further league discipline.
“I’m gonna let the (league) people do what they’re supposed to do,” said head coach Alain Vigneault, bitterly angry after Simmonds wasn’t suspended, of the Komarov incident.
The Rangers have four tough games left before the deadline, plus a game on the night of Feb. 29. While they’re in a solid playoff position and are on a 9-3-1 run, they’re not exactly home and cooled out quite yet.
They’ve also been doing it without star winger Rick Nash, who’s been missing since Jan. 22 with a deep bone bruise in his foot and isn’t expected back soon. In fact, he isn’t even skating.
All this makes moving Yandle very difficult even if it means the Rangers won’t get anything for him if/when he walks as a free agent. But with a compromised/concussed captain and a sidelined Nash, you could make the argument that this just isn’t New York’s year and Gorton would be wise to start rebuilding the prospect cupboard for a team that hasn’t had a first round pick in the last three drafts and will lose another first rounder to Arizona.
They really are at a crossroads here. Key forwards Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are 27 or younger, as is McDonagh, but after that, the lack of draft picks in recent years has really put the Rangers in a potentially precarious position.
Going after Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal (nine goals in 58 games) would cost a draft pick and/or a significant prospect. Winger Andrew Ladd (15 goals) would cost even more, and while giving this group in front of veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist (34 next month) one last chance to go for it all is compelling, the Rangers could really be setting themselves up for a difficult future if they get too aggressive now.
Tricky, tricky, tricky. With only the Washington Capitals as a team that has separated itself from the crowd in the Eastern Conference, and with the Capitals a team that has stumbled in the post-season many times before, it’s incredibly tempting for the Rangers to throw caution to the wind and think only of today.
But if Nash, St. Louis and Yandle couldn’t make the difference - St. Louis helped the Rangers get to the Cup final, Yandle was part of last spring’s Eastern Conference finalist - it seems unlikely anybody available between now and the deadline will be that player, either.
The smart play is to sit tight. The responsible play would be to get back assets for Yandle.
But 22 years after the last Cup was hoisted on Broadway, smart and responsible won’t draw rave reviews for a rookie GM.