By Sean Hartnett
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Any lingering doubts over the Rangers’ strategy as the trade deadline approaches were put to bed Thursday night with an embarrassing 4-0 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Barring something unforeseen, expect the Blueshirts to be sellers.
The paying customers inside Madison Square Garden expected a vigorous performance from the well-rested Rangers following a six-day break. What they got instead compelled the faithful to jeer the team for much of the night.
What we saw were the same headless characteristics that have made up the bulk of this season’s 51 games. Stuttering starts, incomplete efforts, dismal puck management and goaltenders hung out to dry have each exemplified what is in effect a broken team.
Makeshift additions like Cody McLeod and Peter Holland do not form anywhere near a big enough Band-Aid to cover up the cracks. Though the Rangers currently sit a single point below a playoff position, anyone who has observed this team this season has to face the reality that wholesale changes are required.
With the deadline set for Feb. 26, the time has come for general manager Jeff Gorton to conduct a thorough top-to-bottom evaluation of his roster. He must sell, sell, sell and it’s a shame, shame, shame because the Rangers have wasted an All-Star season from franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The league’s generational netminder is inching one step closer to retiring without a Stanley Cup ring and the fruits of a necessary organizational rebuild have arrived in the twilight of his career. Lundqvist will turn 36 on March 2.
If Lundqvist stands any chance of savoring a parade down The Canyon of Heroes, the rebuild must start now. Thursday’s opponent, the Leafs, have shown the merits of a quick rebuild. Toronto is young, fast, skilled and continually finds different ways to win games. Gorton would be wise to follow that same blueprint. He needs to tear the Rangers down and rebuild them with youth.
The list of must-keep players is slim. Lundqvist remains the face of the franchise and primary reason why Garden goers fork over premium moolah for season ticket packages. Top line center Mika Zibanejad, who is all of 24, all-around defenseman Brady Skjei (23), rising winger Pavel Buchnevich (22) and promising blueliner Tony DeAneglo (22) are building blocks worth keeping around for the future given their age and upside.
The big question facing the Rangers should revolve around how deep the roster-gutting goes. It should start with moving a slew of pending unrestricted free agents to clubs that fancy themselves as contenders. That list includes alternate captain Rick Nash, veteran winger Michael Grabner, defenseman Nick Holden and depth center David Desharnais. Nash’s modified no-trade clause allows him to submit a list of 12 teams he would approve.
Tough calls will need to be made on the long-term futures of captain Ryan McDonagh and fan favorite Mats Zuccarello. Both are eligible to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2019. Zuccarello, 30, is on pace to finish the season with 60 points, one short of his 2015-16 career high, but he has not scored a goal in 16 consecutive games.
McDonagh, 28, has endured an atypical and injury-plagued season. Though the all-situation blueliner is on pace to finish the season with 40 points, he hasn’t been the shutdown man or the prime puck mover of years past.
Head coach Alain Vigneault singled out McDonagh during Thursday’s pregame media briefing.
“I would say a fair statement would be I expect a lot more from Mac,” Vigneault said. “I think when he’s on top of his game, he’s an elite defenseman in this league. He’s a powerful defenseman, can beat the forecheck, can get up in the play. Once he’s up in the play, he can still be back in time to defend. In my mind, he’s one of the best defensemen in the league.”
McDonagh’s contract includes a modified no-trade clause, which allows the defenseman to submit a list of 10 teams he cannot be traded to. Zuccarello does not have no-trade protection over the final two years of his contract.
While franchise-altering trades tend to happen around the draft, there’s always a chance that all-in GMs could make tempting deadline offers for the Rangers to consider.
Left-handed defenseman Brendan Smith is signed through the 2020-21 season at an annual cap charge of $4.35 million. Even though his second season with the Rangers has been subpar, he is capable of serving as a top-four cog for several teams. The 28-year-old would have been coveted by nearly every team in the league had the Rangers allowed him to slip to free agency last summer. His contract allows him to submit a list of 15 teams he would approve a trade to.
In today’s NHL, nearly every player has an acceptable price when it comes to trade discussions. With 24 days standing between now and the deadline, there are many factors at play, including salary cap considerations and how the Rangers envision their long-term roster-building plan.
What is abundantly clear is that these Rangers aren’t talented enough to make noise in the playoffs. Their focus should be on recouping assets that will benefit their future.
Please follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey