By Sean Hartnett
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Following the completion of their five-day bye week, the Rangers will return to action on Saturday afternoon against a familiar foe in the rival Islanders.
Although there are still 40 games left in the regular season, the ensuing weeks will define the Blueshirts’ thinking as the Feb. 26 trade deadline nears.
For a team that has annually followed a win-now direction, this is the first season of the Henrik Lundqvist era in which the Rangers’ deadline stance is unclear. With every season that passes, Lundqvist edges closer to retirement. Once he exits the Madison Square Garden stage for good, his successor will be tasked with replacing the highest-performing goaltender this franchise has employed.
Even if 22-year-old Russian prospect Igor Shesterkin eventually rises as the heir to the throne, it would take a very rare goaltender to emulate the remarkable consistency and game-stealing heroics that have been synonymous with Lundqvist’s name.
Lundqvist, who will turn 36 on March 2, is the midst of an exceptional season and was named to the Metropolitan Division All-Star roster on Wednesday. His .924 save percentage is four points above his career average and his .897 short-handed save percentage is the third-highest of his 13 NHL seasons.
There’s a shrinking number of opportunities left for the Blueshirts to take advantage of Lundqvist’s dominance, even if he extends his peak years into his late 30s. When he’s gone, he’s gone, and there will be no guarantee that his successor will come close to his brilliance.
The enduring philosophy of win-now will be weighed against the merits of a wide-ranging rebuild. Would a one-year, possibly playoff-less tear-down and summer shakeup better position Lundqvist for future, legitimate runs at the Stanley Cup? Or do the Rangers press ahead with their usual modus operandi despite a worrying regularity of poor starts, bad puck management and territorial battle losses?
If the Rangers do move forward in win-now mode, they’re going to need to fend off the hunting pack of division rivals looking to take advantage of any slip-up. As things currently stand, the Eastern Conference wild cards would come out of the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Islanders are vying for two spots and are only separated by three points.
Starting with the visiting Islanders on Saturday, the Rangers are going to need to create separation from their pursuers as they plot a course to the top of the division. That’s not going to be easy without the all-around play of unavailable left wing Chris Kreider. It was announced on Tuesday that Kreider underwent successful rib resection surgery and will be re-evaluated in six weeks.
In addition to having to cope with Kreider’s absence, there are many other questions the Rangers will have to answer over the coming weeks — and they can start doing that with a statement win over the Isles.
Can head coach Alain Vigneault find three stable defense pairings that can spark offense while eliminating the careless giveaways that often feed the opposition outnumbering the Blueshirts in transition? Will he be able to get captain Ryan McDonagh back to being an assured, all-around contributor? Will he trust difference-making sophomore Pavel Buchnevich with the top-six role his play deserves?
The list goes on. Will key offseason signing Kevin Shattenkirk rediscover the form that has annually made him one of the league’s best offensive defensemen? Will Rick Nash’s awful shooting luck turn around? Will he become more of an offensive factor to rival his value on the defensive side of the puck?
Forward Kevin Hayes has grown defensively, but his 0.4 points per game are the lowest of his career. He’s going to need to pick up the slack while Kreider is sidelined. Jimmy Vesey had a strong December (seven points in 13 games), but the Rangers need the 24-year-old to flex his goal-scoring ability on a more consistent basis.
By the time January turns to February, the Rangers will likely have all of those answers. If this team is trending the wrong way, it might have no choice but to trade off parts for assets that can help it down the road.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey