By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
One step forward, one step back. That’s been the story of the post-Thanksgiving Rangers — a team that has yet to remedy recurring issues nearly halfway through the season.
A lack of consistent structure in their own end, sloppy puck management and key players struggling to find their A-game have contributed to a 4-8-2 slide since the start of December. You would have to search back to Nov. 23 to locate the Blueshirts’ last two-game winning streak.
Recent victories over the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning were supposed to get the Rangers’ season back on track. The Blueshirts appeared to regain their swagger and get their structure in order during each of those victories, but both have been a teasing mirage, as meek efforts in defeats to the Nashville Predators (5-3) and Florida Panthers (3-0) followed.
Most of their issues stem from an under-performing blue line that has pushed Henrik Lundqvist’s goals-against average to a career-worst 2.51. But let’s make this abundantly clear: Lundqvist is not the problem. His .920 save percentage is right in line with his career average of .921.
Lundqvist’s superhuman play early in the season covered up much of the defensive blemishes. When No. 30 is a step below otherworldly, the Rangers are in trouble given the way their defensemen stumble positionally and struggle moving the puck up ice.
Captain Ryan McDonagh has experienced an up-and-down campaign, while alternate captains Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have played far below the level expected from veteran top-four defensemen. And that’s in addition to top-six forwards Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider suffering dips in production.
Kevin Hayes has gone from standout rookie to recent press box spectator and has been on the receiving end of public criticism from head coach Alain Vigneault, though his return could come at home against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday after Emerson Etem endured a rough night in Florida.
All of this has Rangers fans wondering if a shakeup is on the horizon, but with less than $1 million in available cap space and eight players possessing a form of no-move/no-trade clause, it will be very difficult to resuscitate this team from the outside if things go further south. Lundqvist, Staal, Girardi and Dan Boyle all carry no-movement clauses, while Nash, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Dominic Moore have limited no-trade clauses.
Being pressed near the cap ceiling and having a number of NMCs/NTCs tying the general manager’s hands isn’t something exclusive to Jeff Gorton and the Rangers. It is a scenario shared by a number of contenders in both conferences.
The piece that might net the Rangers the highest return via trade is 29-year-old defenseman Keith Yandle. In the final year of a five-year, $26.25 million deal, the Rangers are paying $2.625 million of Yandle’s $5.25 million total cap charge.
It has been suggested that Yandle could be moved to acquire a top-six winger, though dealing away the smooth-skating defenseman would cost the Rangers a big piece of their arsenal. Yandle excels at moving the puck efficiently up ice and is a possession-driving blueliner who boasts outstanding creativity. His 19 assists lead the Rangers and he is tied for seventh among NHL defensemen. Zuccarello, Brassard and Nash are the only Blueshirts to contribute more points than Yandle’s 20.
Yandle is the kind of rare talent the Rangers must extend — even if it takes some clever salary cap juggling to do so. With the likelihood of this being Boyle’s final season, it’s all the more important to keep Yandle around for the long-term given his power play expertise and ability to initiate attacks at even strength.
Given their salary cap situation and with a number of key players under-performing, the Rangers’ trade options appear to be limited. They’ve essentially tied their hopes to this group. Expect a few tweaks between now and the Feb. 29 trade deadline, but nothing major. It’s up to the trusted group of core players to raise their game and pull the Rangers out of this slide.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey