NEW YORK – They say it’s the worst spot to be this time of year.
Not perceptibly awful enough to sell your wares and boost your lottery odds. Not good enough to be considered a legitimate threat to lift that pretty silver thing.
The New York Rangers have enjoyed a run of seven consecutive playoff appearances, peaking with their 2014 trip to the Stanley Cup Final, where they were soundly trounced by the Los Angeles Kings, robbing an emotional Martin St. Louis of a fairy-tale ending and leaving one glaring unchecked box on Henrik Lundqvist’s Hall of Fame resume.
But are the 2018 Rangers even close to catching fire like they did in ’14, let alone reaching the summit of ’94?
Cold fact: The Rangers are 6-9-1 since Dec. 19. The vultures may not yet be overhead, but they’ve begun their migration.
Funny how perspective flips when qualifying for the post-season becomes the expectation rather than the hope.
Stuck in the muddled middle of the wild-card mix, young Carolina (juiced off fresh ownership) and speedy New Jersey (enjoying an identity shift, thanks to newish management) are more likely to add than sell in an effort to snuff their playoff droughts. It’s imperative that the cross-town Islanders improve their back end.
The Rangers are right there with them in a Metropolitan Division hunt that should remain jumbled until April, but New York is more likely to deplete its roster than add to it, despite injury holes and $4.8 million in cap space to spend.
Free-agent prize and power-play QB Kevin Shattenkirk is sidelined indefinitely after undergoing January surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Net-crashing winger Chris Kreider’s health is also a question mark since a frightening blood clot was discovered in his right arm. Respected head coach Alain Vigneault, whose teams have made the playoffs nine years running, has already survived one round of hot-seat chatter this season.
Captain Ryan McDonagh, cap-friendly sniper Michael Grabner, pending UFA Rick Nash, leading scorer and fan favourite Mats Zuccarello — they’re all available for the right price, according to reports from both Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman and New York Post reporter Larry Brooks.
Of those names, McDonagh’s is the one that jumps into the shot-blocking lanes of fans’ minds. The reliable defender is just 28, logs a team-high 23:56 per night, tops all Blueshirts blueliners with a plus-11 rating, and carries a digestible cap hit of $4.7 million for two more springs.
Subtract McDonagh from a blue line that already surrenders 33.9 shots per game (third-most in the NHL), and where does that leave New York?
“It’s hard to put a percentage on [McDonagh’s value], but he’s been a big part of our team for many years now,” Lundqvist says.
“He’s extremely skilled — the way he skates, the way he moves the puck. He’s a good leader for us as well. He’s a big piece, that’s for sure.”
The calming eye at the centre of this rumour hurricane is the Rangers’ best, oldest, richest, handsomest, and longest-tenured player.
At 35, Henrik Lundqvist is having the type of season Marc Bergevin bet Carey Price, 30, will still be able to muster a half decade from now.
The King’s numbers (21-13-4, two shutouts, .922 save percentage) earned him another invite to the All-Star Game, where he laughed off P.K. Subban’s throwing a glove at him during a breakaway, and again thrust him into Vezina-nominee territory.
Unlike recent years, Lundqvist doesn’t have the stellar backup support of a Cam Talbot or Antti Raanta — Ondrej Pavelec is 4-7-1 — and he’s met the challenges of a heavy workload.
The Rangers rank dead last in possession, as measured by a 5-on-5 shot-attempt percentage of 46.2.
“It’s funny how it works,” Lundqvist says. “Sometimes you can play 10 or 15 straight games and you’re not tired. Other times you play three or four games and you’re exhausted. It all comes down to how intense the games are and how you feel mentally.”
The ultra-well-rested Blueshirts finally return to action Thursday after another six(!) days off for the all-star break.
“I’ve had enough of time-offs,” Vigneault said, staring at an intense slate of 14 games over the next 28 days. “It’s time to play.”
Vigneault was asked if he’s using GM Jeff Gorton’s rumoured Feb. 26 fire sale as a motivational tactic: Hey, guys, let’s hop on a winning streak so the boss keeps us together!
“I’m not concerned at all about the white noise surrounding any trade period,” Vigneault said.
“As a player, you’re a professional. You have to focus on what your game is and what you need to do. As a coach and coaching staff, you have to make sure your players are focusing on the right things.
“The only thing our whole coaching staff and our players are focused on is whoever that next opponent is.”
That would be the Toronto Maple Leafs, who packed their dads and flew to New York late Wednesday after trouncing the Islanders at home.
Toronto has won three straight, the last two by a combined score of 9-1 with their youngest lineup. Don’t put it past Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who wants to buy, to ask Lou Lamoriello to kick tires on McDonagh and Nash.
The Rangers recalled Leafs castoff Peter Holland and will dress waiver-wire pickup Cody McLeod, a veteran scrapper of 1,524 career penalty minutes.
With McLeod openly saying he’s ready “to drop the gloves or whatever” in his Original Six debut, we wonder if that will prompt Babcock to end enforcer Matt Martin’s run of three consecutive healthy scratches.
In a metaphorical sense, the Rangers have no choice but to fight. The conversation around the group is that the playoff push begins now. Consequences loom.
“We haven’t won as much as we wanted to, so speculation is going to be more this year. But you can’t get sucked into it too much,” says Lundqvist, deflecting another trade-deadline question into the netting.
“You can’t put too much thinking into it. You have to stay focused on the play, or else you can’t keep moving forward.
“We’ll see what happens.”