By Sean Hartnett
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Tick, tick, tick.
The clock is ticking for this Rangers group to come of age. Through 30 games, the Blueshirts are currently positioned in the second wild-card spot – though even on points (35) with the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
As the months leading up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline loom closer, the fog will disperse, and the playoff picture will become clear. Once January turns to February, the Rangers (16-11-3) will know whether they’re buyers or sellers.
Monday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars was a sign of how bad things can become if the Rangers don’t get it together. The Blueshirts spent the night constantly pinned in their own end and struggled to connect the dots. Too often, the Rangers have been forced to play catch-up due to bad starts that linger beyond the first period. Backup netminder Ondrej Pavelec delivered an A-plus performance under constant duress. The 30-year-old Czech dragged underperforming teammates by the collar to overtime and then the shootout in a 44-save performance.
Coach Alain Vigneault was in an abrupt mood following the defeat. His postgame news conference lasted 40 seconds.
“There are two positives: Pavs played unreal, and because of his performance, we were able to get a point,” Vigneault said. “Other than that, we weren’t good.”
According to HockeyStats.ca, Dallas out-attempted the Rangers 93-48 in all situations and 75-35 in five-on-five situations. The Stars finished the night with 45 shots on goal compared to the Rangers’ 25. Inside New York’s dressing room was a group of players that was honest about an abject performance.
“I think everyone in here knows that was embarrassing for two periods,” alternate captain Mats Zuccarello said. “They smacked us around, and we didn’t win one battle. We didn’t win a puck battle in front of the net. We weren’t first on the pucks. It’s not acceptable for the team that we are supposed to be. I think everyone in here knows that.
“Getting something out of this game is all Pav,” Zuccarello continued. “We have no business getting anything out of this game. I think everyone understands that. We just have to forget about this and come tomorrow to practice. We know how we are supposed to play. We gave it a push in the third. In terms of 60 minutes, that’s below standard, and we shouldn’t accept that. I think everyone in here knows that.”
What the Rangers lacked most Monday was spirit, push-back and energy. For a team that has continually been in win-now mode, February could present a fork in the road. The players are either going to take it up a notch and play to the level their salaries and reputations dictate they should – or it’s time for general manager Jeff Gorton to make further alterations to this team’s core.
Missing the playoffs or flaming out again early in the postseason would represent a clear signal to rebuild. If the Rangers are limping into February, the wise move would be to turn into sellers. In this case, expiring contracts equal trade bait. Alternate captain Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Nick Holden, David Desharnais and other pending unrestricted free agents would be floated as a trade bait.
The combined return for Nash and Grabner could be as high as multiple first-round picks and more. Nash possesses a modified no-trade clause in which the player would submit a 12-team trade list. But how deep would the rebuild go if the Rangers enter sell mode?
Versatile defenseman Brendan Smith will turn 29 in February. When the Rangers locked down Smith in June to a four-year, $17.4 million deal that kept him away from free agency, it was a blow to a long list of teams that hoped to get in on the bidding. Smith’s modified no-trade clause stipulates that he would submit a 15-team trade list.
Most intriguingly, captain Ryan McDonagh and fan favorite Zuccarello are potential unrestricted free agents in 2019. Zuccarello is 30 and McDonagh will turn 30 in February. A modified no-trade clause in McDonagh’s contract allows him to name 10 teams he would not accept a trade to. Zuccarello’s remaining two years do not include no-trade protection. If McDonagh or Zuccarello are made available in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline or in the summer, the return would have to be massive.
Last time around, in July 2013, the Rangers signed a 24-year-old McDonagh to a cap-friendly six-year, $4.7 million annual-average value contract. The team captain is viewed as a cornerstone, top-pair defenseman. He would likely command a seven-year deal above $6 million annually in his next deal. The big question will be if the Rangers view McDonagh as essential to their future. “Untradeable” is a term that is only used on the rarest caliber of player these days. If the price is right, both McDonagh and Zuccarello ($4.5 million AAV) could be moved in blockbuster deals that significantly change the franchise’s identity.
On the other side of the coin, the likes of McDonagh, Zuccarello, Nash, Grabner and company are by no means for sale if this group finds its way and inspires confidence ahead of the trade deadline.
At present, the Rangers appear to be lacking a bona fide No. 2 center behind currently injured pivot Mika Zibanejad. Look at the Stars team that rolled into the Garden and flexed its muscle down the middle, albeit against a Rangers team that sorely missed Zibanejad. Dallas can send out Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Radek Faksa in succession. Eastern Conference rivals such as the Tampa Bay Lightning pack Steven Stamkos (1.44 points per game), Brayden Point (0.89 P/GP) and Yanni Gourde (0.68 P/GP) down the middle.
Desharnais (0.48 P/GP) and a slumping Kevin Hayes (one point in the last six games and 0.4 points per game) haven’t been convincing this season – and it’s no secret that Vigneault prefers J.T. Miller on the wing. The Rangers don’t quite have one-two punch pivots like the Washington Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom (0.83 points per game) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 point per game), never mind the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The 9-12-7 Ottawa Senators are crashing and burning. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Sens plan to ask their 10 players with no-trade clauses to provide lists of teams they would not accept a trade to.
Mike Hoffman is a name that would make sense for the Rangers should they remain in win-now mode. The versatile 28-year-old wing/center has three years remaining on his current deal at just over $5.1 million AAV. Hoffman has recorded 21 points (nine goals and 12 assists) through 28 games.
What makes Hoffman attractive is his combination of high skill, blazing speed, rapid release shot and industrious play. He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty to score goals and has scored at least 26 goals in the past three seasons. Rangers fans will remember him well from last season’s playoffs, when he recorded two goals and two assists.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey