Bottom 6 Forward, Third Pairing D-Man Should Be On The Menu Prior To March 2

By Sean Hartnett
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NHL general managers will be scrambling to bolster their respective rosters before next Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline.

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Rangers fans are wondering how Glen Sather will go about supplying head coach Alain Vigneault with the final pieces required for a deep playoff run. Throughout his 14 years as Rangers GM, Sather has never been afraid of making bold decisions. Last year’s Martin St. Louis-for-Ryan Callahan deadline day blockbuster armed the Blueshirts for their march to the Stanley Cup Final.

Make no mistake, there is very little separating this season’s Blueshirts from replicating last season’s playoff success. This time around, the Rangers aren’t in need of a blockbuster deal. All that’s needed to make another serious run at Lord Stanley is a couple of stabilizing depth pieces.

The Rangers (36-16-6) have caught fire of late and appear ready to overtake the first-place Islanders. Following Sunday’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Rangers moved within two points of the Isles while having played three less games. The Rangers extended their consecutive point streak to eight games and have earned a point in 11 of 12 overall.

Their top two forward lines are set. The Rick Nash-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-St. Louis lines are displaying excellent chemistry. Their third line of Carl Hagelin-Kevin Hayes-J.T. Miller is also brimming with confidence.

Once 23-year-old Jesper Fast returns from injury, the Rangers will have reliable players at 11 of 12 forward spots. Fast skated with teammates in a non-contact jersey at Sunday’s morning skate in Greenburgh. He is about a week away from full recovery from a sprained right knee. Once healthy, the trustworthy Swede will slide back into a bottom six role.

For all the chemistry, creativity and strong possession being offered by the Rangers’ top three lines, the fourth line has been an issue that’s plagued them all season. No matter what Vigneault says publicly, he hasn’t been able to roll four lines.

Dominic Moore isn’t the problem. The 34-year-old veteran remains an excellent skater and an intelligent two-way center. He understands how to combine speed, tenacity and smarts to win puck battles and he gets under the skin of opponents while staying out of the penalty box.

Fourth line wingers Tanner Glass and Lee Stempniak have not looked the part. Glass and Stempniak have not struck up chemistry with Moore and have continued to make frequent coverage mistakes. Moore’s effectiveness has been dragged down by a line that chases the puck rather than retaining possession. Glass is simply one of the worst possession players in league and often gets caught in bad positions. Stempniak lacks the grinding qualities of a classic fourth liner. He isn’t winning enough puck battles.

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The return of Fast could solve one of the two problem areas on the Rangers’ fourth line. If Sather is unable to acquire a faceoff-dominant center, Vigneault could opt to keep the current third line of Hagelin-Hayes-Miller intact. With Fast edging closer to a game action, all that’s needed to solidify the Rangers’ bottom six is another dependable forward.

Buffalo Sabres center Torrey Mitchell would be nice fit for the Rangers. The 30-year-old center is good skater and a decent faceoff winner that plays an in-your-face style. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Mark Letestu, also 30, would offer versatility, as he can play center and on the wing. He’s a more skilled faceoff man than Mitchell, but isn’t as physical or as defensively sound. An experienced center like Mitchell or Letestu would allow Hayes to shift to the right wing.

If the Rangers feel comfortable with Hayes at center and don’t want to mess with their third line chemistry, Toronto Maple Leafs winger Daniel Winnik and Ottawa Senators winger Erik Condra are two hard-working forwards enjoying strong seasons on weak teams. Winnik, 29, can also play center.

Currently, the Rangers have about $1.5 million in available cap space to work with and do not have a 2015 first-round pick to dangle in trade talks. They do possess two 2015 second-round picks. The Rangers are not trading any of their top prospects. Anthony Duclair, Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei are off limits. Their cap situation, an absence of a first-round pick this year and a lack of attractive available prospects will hurt the Rangers’ chances of  landing a big-name trade target like Antoine Vermette.

There might be a team out there that wouldn’t mind taking on Stempniak’s modest $900,000 cap hit. With the Rangers, he isn’t playing a role that suits his abilities. He could be a decent depth scorer elsewhere.

Vigneault trusts the Rangers’ five top defensemen – Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Kevin Klein and Dan Boyle. But neither Matt Hunwick nor John Moore has done enough to lock down the sixth spot. The duo continues to be rotated.

There might be a team or two that likes what it has seen from Moore. The 24-year-old has yet to make full use of a his 6-foot-3 frame, heavy shot and fast legs. There are certainly teams out there that believe they can unlock his full potential.

That said, bringing in a defenseman is not going to be easy for the Rangers. The pool of blue line trade targets isn’t deep and the asking price is steep. They’d love to add a mobile skater that plays the puck with coolness like the Carolina Hurricanes’ Andrej Sekera, but it’s going to cost an arm and a leg. The 28-year-old’s game as a whole isn’t flashy, but GMs love low-maintenance guys that play disciplined hockey and abstain from taking foolish penalties.

If the Rangers can’t complete the deal they want for a solidifying blue liner, 25-year-old prospect Conor Allen could re-emerge in the competition to fill out the last pairing.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey