By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers have already begun making significant changes to their core. It’s probably going to continue soon, real soon.
They started their overhaul with Wednesday’s announcement that long-time defenseman Dan Girardi will be bought out.
Next up? One would figures trades.
Deals around the league could begin happening at a fast and furious rate prior to Saturday’s 3 p.m. trade/waiver freeze ahead of the June 18-20 expansion draft. One big one happened Thursday when Montreal acquired Jonathan Drouin from Tampa Bay for highly-touted 18-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and an exchange for conditional draft picks.
As a result of that move, the Canadiens may be looking to unload Alex Galchenyuk.
Making a run at the 23-year-old center makes sense on a number of levels for the Rangers, who must decide quickly whether Derek Stepan fits into their long-term vision. Stepan’s full no-trade clause kicks in on July 1. If the Rangers aren’t comfortable with the soon-to-be 27-year-old’s $6.5 million cap hit on their books through the 2020-21 season, now is the time to part ways with him.
After July 1, Stepan will possess a full no-trade clause for the next two seasons and will have the right to veto any deal. Over the final two years of his contract, the full no-trade clause becomes a modified NTC where Stepan can list 15 teams that he cannot be traded to.
Stepan is an incredibly reliable and intelligent center on both ends of the ice. He has recorded at least 53 points in each of the past four seasons, while demonstrating a strong positional sense across 200 feet. He’s a leader in every sense of the word. Stepan will deliver no-nonsense messages on the bench and in the dressing room when appropriate. He’s always possessed the right work habits for younger teammates to follow and head coach Alain Vigneault relies on him to relay his words to the team.
Make no mistake, the Rangers would be giving up a lot by parting ways with the experienced center. But Stepan had an atypical playoffs and was highly critical of his performances after the Rangers were eliminated in the second round by the Ottawa Senators in six games.
“Individually, I’m disappointed and ashamed and flat-out embarrassed,” Stepan said. “It kills me I was not able to find my game. It is what it is, just have to live with it.”
On break-up day back on May 11, Stepan admitted that he was a little too self-critical following the Blueshirts’ premature elimination.
“As I get away from it now, I’m not thrilled with the way I played,” Stepan said. “I was hard on myself. I wasn’t as bad as I said I was. I beat myself up pretty good about it. It certainly wasn’t my best. I’m not hiding behind anything. The more I pushed, it felt like I was in quicksand. The more I struggled, the faster I sank.”
Stepan dipped from an 11.5 shooting percentage in 2015-16 to an 8.1 success rate last season. He scored two goals in 12 games this past playoffs at a 6.1-percent scoring rate.
Galchenyuk possesses more of a sniper’s touch than Stepan. He was a 30-goal scorer in 2015-16 at a 14.9 shooting percentage. Last season, lower-body/knee injuries forced Galchenyuk to miss 21 games, but his shooting percentage jumped to 16.3. His 2.72 points per 60 minutes led the Canadiens. Stepan finished with a 2.19 P/60.
What Galchenyuk doesn’t have at this point in his career is the defensive sense that Stepan does, though he does have quicker legs and would benefit from moving to a team that can offer him a full-time center role. The Canadiens seemed to be messing with his development by constantly switching him between center and the left wing. Galchenyuk is a restricted free agent this summer.
From the Canadiens’ perspective, the opportunity to acquire Stepan would make sense because he’s a bonafide two-way center with a lot of experience at a fairly youthful age. For the Rangers, Galchenyuk makes sense in the way that dealing Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad made sense last summer. The Brassard-Zibanejad swap was swung by general manager Jeff Gorton with an eye on the future.
Deciding Stepan’s future is a tough call and I don’t envy Gorton’s position. Trading a player who has accomplished so much in a Rangers sweater would be a hard pill to swallow, but trading familiarity for a high-potential replacement could make the Blueshirts a stronger team in 2017-18.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey