‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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Glen Sather likes to roll the dice. It’s become abundantly clear over the years that when Sather has his eyes locked on a target, he’s not afraid to shake up his roster to land the front-line player he desires.
When there’s smoke coming out of Edmonton that the Oilers are dangling high-ceiling sniper Nail Yakupov, it’s imperative for Sather to kick the tires on the possibility of bringing the former 2012 first-overall draft pick to New York.
On Monday, the Oilers’ brain trust of general manager Craig MacTavish, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe and special advisor Mark Messier were seated together on the Chase Bridge overlooking the ice at Madison Square Garden. It was an ample opportunity for the trio to get a closer look at a number of Rangers defensemen who are capable of plugging up their leaky defense.
The Oilers have surrendered 26 goals in their past seven games. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are two names that spring to mind as players who would bring immediate stability to Edmonton’s faltering blue line.
Most interesting was the appearance of Messier, who parted ways with the Rangers this summer after failing to land the Rangers’ head-coaching gig. He’s now serving in an advisory role to MacTavish and Lowe. Messier spent the past four years working under Sather in a similar capacity. If anyone knows what’s going on inside Sather’s head, it’s Messier. He’s an invaluable resource should the Oilers seriously consider addressing their defensive woes via a potential blockbuster trade with the Rangers.
WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO LAND YAKUPOV?
From the Rangers’ perspective, Staal and Ryan McDonagh are likely untradeable assets. That tag might now be lifted from 29-year-old veteran Girardi, who has struggled initially under new head coach Alain Vigneault.
Girardi has not managed a single point in 14 games in 2013-14. He’s also an upcoming unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014. Girardi’s blood and guts, gung-ho style was a perfect fit under previous head coach John Tortorella.
The new uptempo system under Vigneault requires defensemen who can handle a greater emphasis on puck movement and quick decision-making. Girardi is regarded as a decent puck mover and an average passer. In time, Girardi will find his game. He’s a “pro’s pro” who logs enormous minutes and is as gutsy as any blue liner in the league, but is he an ideal fit under Vigneault? That remains to be seen.
Many have already speculated that Michael Del Zotto would interest MacTavish, but the Oilers already possess a similarly-skilled offensive defenseman in Justin Schultz. What Edmonton really needs is a stabilizing defensive anchor like Girardi.
Girardi alone wouldn’t be enough of a haul to pry Yakupov from the Oilers. 22-year-old winger Chris Kreider is extremely attractive to the Oilers given his rare combination of size, speed and natural ability.
Sather would be wise to break off talks should the Oilers demand the 6-foot-3 Kreider in return in any possible Yakupov blockbuster. Kreider has arguably been the Rangers’ best-performing forward since his October 24 season debut in Philadelphia. In seven games, Kreider has registered two goals and four assists. For the first time in his NHL career, Kreider has been given consistent minutes and is rewarding the Rangers for their faith in him.
20-year-old J.T. Miller has bounced in and out of the Rangers’ lineup, but he too could be attractive to Edmonton given his versatility, offensive upside and potential to grow into a power forward once he adds more bulk to his 6-foot-1 frame.
Perhaps a package of Girardi, Miller, a minor-league forward with enough size to crack an NHL lineup — such as Marek Hrivik — and a combination of draft picks could be enough to sway MacTavish into parting with Yakupov.
Edmonton is also desperate to deal away 30-year-old winger Ales Hemsky’s burdensome $5 million salary. Hemsky would be of little value to the Rangers, who would be unlikely to dedicate that kind of cap space to a declining player with a significant history of injuries.
YAKUPOV’S REPUTATION DOGGED BY CHARACTER CONCERNS
The idea of the Oilers being open to trading Yakupov raises a few red flags about the 20-year-old’s character and maturity. The fact that Edmonton might be willing to deal Yakupov in just his second NHL season is highly concerning.
Yakupov was outspoken following the first healthy scratch of his career on October 12.
“I’m going to play my game,” Yakupov told the Edmonton Journal. “I’m not going to change, but maybe play better without the puck, or forecheck more — but I love playing with the puck. I really don’t like skating all the time, and forechecking, and hitting somebody every shift. I don’t think it’s my game.”
Yakupov has only scored one goal and registered two assists in 13 games this season. He’s far off the pace of his strong rookie campaign in which he netted 17 goals and assisted 14 times in 48 games.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO SATHER
The Rangers certainly have enough parts to pry Yakupov from the Oilers. It really comes down to whether Sather is hot and heavy over Yakupov as the man to address the Rangers’ dearth of natural goal scoring while Rick Nash remains absent from the lineup.
Some scouts view Yakupov as a potential game-breaking talent in the mold of Pavel Bure or Alex Kovalev. If Sather agrees with their assessment, he might be ready to pull the trigger on a deal that sends Yakupov to Madison Square Garden.
CONFUSION OVER NASH’S STATUS
Daren Millard of Sportsnet tweeted that Nash had skated at the Rangers’ practice facility, which was news to regular beat writers who did not see Nash on the ice on Tuesday. Perhaps Nash skated in a private session alone from the team.
John Shannon of Sportsnet revealed on a Tuesday panel show that Nash had visited the Rangers’ Tarrytown facility, but only to undergo concussion tests with a concussion expert who visited from Michigan.
At this point, any confirmed progress on Nash’s condition by the Rangers would be encouraging to the fan base. Thus far, the team has closely guarded any updates regarding Nash’s health.
The star winger has been out of the Rangers’ lineup since receiving a high hit from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart in the first period on October 8. Stuart served a three-game suspension after the league ruled that his hit on Nash violated Rule 48.
Via an official NHL video, senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan said Stuart “unnecessarily extends the left side of his body upward, specifically his left shoulder, in a way that makes Nash’s head the main point of contact, causing an injury.”
Nash admitted he had a headache following the October 8 defeat at SAP Center. At the moment, it is unclear whether Nash is months or weeks away from returning to the Blueshirts’ lineup.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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