By Sean Hartnett
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It takes four strong lines to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers’ bottom six took a significant hit when 23-year-old winger Jesper Fast was ruled out for two to three weeks following the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars on Sunday.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault confirmed following the game that Fast had suffered a first degree sprain of his right knee during Saturday’s 3-2 loss in Nashville. Vigneault also said that the team is not currently planning to call up an extra forward ahead of its three-game road trip, which starts in Toronto against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
“He’s been one of our more dependable players,” Vigneault said of Fast. “Other than one turnover that sticks in my mind right now, he’s been very dependable without the puck. With the puck, he’s done a great job killing (penalties) for us.”
With the March 2 trade deadline looming, general manager Glen Sather will be busy attempting to bolster Vigneault’s third and fourth line options. The addition of a third line faceoff specialist is desperately needed.
The Rangers rank 29th in the NHL in faceoff win percentage at 46.5 percent. Rookie forward Kevin Hayes is only winning 35.7 percent of his draws (263-for-409).
Hayes is learning on the job. He has demonstrated playmaking acumen and has a terrific pair of hands. He’s going to be a dominant center once he figures out how to win draws and maximize his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame. Ideally, the Rangers would like to shift Hayes to the wing once a faceoff-winning center is acquired.
Making things tricky for the Rangers is their lack of a 2015 first round pick. It was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning at last season’s trade deadline, along with Ryan Callahan, for Martin St. Louis.
Arizona Coyotes center Antoine Vermette and versatile Maple Leafs forward Mike Santorelli are the most attractive centers believed to be on the trade block.
Vermette could become the most sought-after player at the deadline. The 32-year-old center plays with outstanding two-way instincts, speed and tenacity. He has recorded 33 points, including 22 assists, in 53 games and has won 56.7 percent of faceoffs. With six, he currently has more power play goals than any Ranger.
Vermette’s cap hit is $3.75 million and he is a pending unrestricted free agent. Although many teams view him as a rental player, it’s probably going to take either a top prospect and a first round pick, or an attractive roster player and a top prospect to land him.
Santorelli is also a pending unrestricted free agent. He will be a desirable rental because of his friendly cap hit. The 29-year-old signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Leafs during the summer. Santorelli has shown that he can thrive at center and on the wing. He has recorded 29 points in 54 games and has won 46.3 percent of faceoffs. The Leafs are in sell mode and seeking youth and picks.
Right now, the Rangers’ bottom two lines are being hurt by the loss of Fast and the underwhelming play of summer signings Tanner Glass and Lee Stempniak.
Sather will also be looking for an upgrade on the blue line. John Moore and Matt Hunwick have not impressed. Neither has taken the opportunity to lock down a consistent role as a third-pair defenseman. Additionally, the Rangers could opt to acquire a temporary backup goalie while Henrik Lundqvist is on the mend. Vigneault said following Sunday’s defeat that Cam Talbot is “giving us a chance to win every game.”
Even though Talbot is capable of handling a large workload, 20-year-old backup Mackenzie Skapski has yet to play an NHL game.
LUNDQVIST LOOKING TO RETURN IN TIME FOR HOMESTRETCH
Prior to Sunday’s game, Lundqvist addressed the media for about 10 minutes and admitted that had he continued playing, a strained blood vessel in his neck could have put his health in danger.
“If I would keep playing, I’d run the big risk of having a stroke,” Lundqvist said.
Despite the scare, Lundqvist said he expects to make a full recovery. He will continue resting, taking aspirin and doing workouts on an exercise bike. Lundqvist said he might be able to begin skating in a week or two, though he would not be facing any shots.
“You can’t take a risk on this,” Lundqvist said. “I have to listen to the doctors because it’s that serious. I won’t play until I’m ready to play. I’m going to heal 100 percent.”
Lundqvist will be re-evaluated by doctors in two weeks. The Rangers said on Friday that their 32-year-old franchise goaltender would remain sidelined for a minimum of three weeks. He will return to game action some time after the trade deadline has passed.
“I don’t want to push this injury as long as it’s there,” Lundqvist said. “My plan is to come back and be super-excited and ready to play the last push of the season and the playoffs.”
It will be interesting to see which new faces will be playing in front of King Henrik once he returns. The Rangers are expected to be a busy team as the trade deadline nears.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey