By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
“We’ve been going for it since last year,” Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. “Absolutely.”
Sather made all the right moves leading up to Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Crucially, he was able to get Zuccarello to drop his demands of a five-year deal and a $5.5 million average annual salary. Zuccarello reportedly agreed to a four-year, $18 million extension.
His new contract became official at 6:09 p.m. on Monday, just before the Rangers were set to face the Western Conference-leading Nashville Predators. Zuccarello proceeded to take center stage in the Rangers’ dominant 4-1 victory. Every time he touched the puck, the Garden showed their appreciation with amplified chants of “Zuuuucccc.”
Having recorded two assists in a typically energized performance, Zuccarello earned first-star honors.
“We get the two points, I get to stay here four years,” Zuccarello said. “This day couldn’t be much better.”
The 5-foot-7 winger passed up the opportunity to test unrestricted free agency. Unlike former captain Ryan Callahan, Zuccarello was willing to meet the Rangers halfway. Zuccarello’s desire was to remain with the only NHL franchise he’s ever known. In the end, he sacrificed dollars to stay with a group of teammates he calls his family.
“I’m really happy,” Zuccarello said. “I’m with all my friends. It feels like we’re a family here.”
Take Zuccarello out of the equation and the first-place Rangers (39-17-6) would be a broken team.
“I like everything about him,” Sather said. “His tenacity, his hard work, the way he sees the ice and the chemistry he brings to the dressing room. He’s been a terrific player for us.”
Only one man knows if Sather was serious about trading Zuccarello, and that man is Sather himself.
“Well, let’s say I put on the market that we’re gonna trade him,” Sather said. “Whether or not that would have ever happened is another story.”
Sather is optimistic about the Rangers’ chances of going on another deep playoff run.
“If we stay healthy, if we have enough depth, if everyone performs, if we get the good goaltending we think we’re gonna have, you can go all the way,” Sather said. “But a lot of things have to happen, and there’s gonna be a lot of teams that are gonna be thinking the same thing I’m thinking here today. Everybody made deals. We’re all optimistic about where we’re gonna end up.”
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault believes that the Yandle acquisition shows every player inside the dressing room that the organization is going all-in for a run at the Stanley Cup.
“I think it’s a real strong vote of confidence to our players that we feel we’ve got a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said.
Alternate captain Derek Stepan believes that the addition of Yandle gives the Rangers the strongest six defensemen in the NHL.
“Obviously, I’m a little biased, but I think we have the best six,” Stepan said.
Captain Ryan McDonagh praised Yandle’s abilities.
“He’s a player who has tremendous skills offensively,” McDonagh said. “He can be relied on to play a ton of minutes. He fit right in here. I thought he played really well. He was poised with the puck. He’s always got his head up looking to make plays. It’s pretty exciting.”
As McDonagh mentioned, Yandle has an ability to handle large minutes. This will allow Vigneault to balance out minutes among his six defensemen. No defenseman will be overloaded, and the Rangers’ blue liners will be fresher come playoff time.
“If we can spread out the minutes, the guys can play faster when they’re on,” Vigneault said. “They can play faster, quicker, get up in the play. It should make us a better team on both ends of the rink.”
The final piece of the puzzle will be the return to health of all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik celebrated his 33rd birthday on Monday. He is yet to undergo a follow-up examination on his blood vessel injury. Lundqvist was hit in the throat by a shot on Jan. 31. He hasn’t played since Feb. 2.
Lundqvist has continued to do on-ice and off-ice workouts. So far, he has only faced low shots.
Once Lundqvist is able to see game action, the presence of Yandle could make his job a lot easier. Yandle has the ability to be a force on the power play with his explosive stride, poise, clever passing and powerful one timer.
With Zuccarello sticking around and Yandle making an already impressive group of defensemen possibly the league’s best, an eventually returning King Henrik is closer than ever to getting his hands on the Stanley Cup.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.