By Steve Lichtenstein
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When it comes to the local teams in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, perspective is everything.
With approximately two-thirds of the season complete, teams 2 through 8 in the Metro are separated by a mere eight points. Those slots could conceivably be flipped in relatively short order.
The Rangers, who are sitting in last place with 55 points in 54 games but are only three points out of the eighth and final playoff seed, basically threw in the towel Thursday, announcing to the hockey world they are prepared to blow it up. Or at least carve out certain vital organs.
Thursday’s presentation by Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton seemed logical, and it had the support of a significant crowd within both the media and fan base.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are tied in points (58) for that last wild-card slot but have played 55 games versus 53 games for Columbus. Islanders fans hold far different expectations for this season. They are ready to take up arms to storm general manager Garth Snow’s castle if he doesn’t go all in to make the postseason by fixing his mess on defense.
So where does that leave the Devils, who are in the best position of the region’s troika with 62 points in 53 games? They occupy third place in the Metro, albeit very tenuously. Just a few more performances like their last two — a 5-3 loss in Ottawa on Tuesday followed by a 3-2 defeat to Calgary on Thursday at the Prudential Center — and they’ll also be on the outside looking in. For a sixth consecutive season.
Will New Jersey general manager Ray Shero be a buyer prior to the Feb. 26 trade deadline for the first time in his three-year tenure? Or will he return to a seller’s role, pawning off guys such as Drew Stafford for a fifth-round pick à la P.A. Parenteau last season?
It might be neither, if you believe what Shero told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale in an interview Wednesday.
“I want to be a competitive team this year and a competitive team in the future,” Shero said in the interview, inferring that he will absolutely not take out a mortgage by dealing top prospects for veteran rentals just to qualify for the playoffs this season. “We have good depth coming up, and that’s something I don’t want to lose and set us back.”
Shero said this is also not the time to dip into the Devils’ other potent asset — their approximately $8 million in salary cap space, per CapFriendly.com.
“We’re good cap-wise right now, but one or two bad deals and that all goes away, and it becomes hard to get out of,” Shero said.
Shero has a fine track record when it comes to making trades, both in New Jersey and in his previous gig in Pittsburgh. Morreale noted that Shero’s acquisition of players such as Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz before the deadline were instrumental in the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup title run.
The Devils wouldn’t be close to where they are if not for Shero’s trade in the summer of 2016 for All-Star left wing Taylor Hall, whose marvelous season keeps chugging along. He’s on a 12-game point streak following his second-period goal Thursday.
Shero did make an in-season trade Nov. 30, giving up forwards Adam Henrique and Joseph Blandisi plus a conditional draft pick for veteran defenseman Sami Vatanen.
Unfortunately, Vatanen, heralded as a solid top-four defenseman, has been as inconsistent as his club in a top-pair role since the trade. Coming off several strong performances leading up to Thursday’s affair with the Flames, Vatanen was cited by Devils coach John Hynes for “a soft box-out” on Calgary center Sean Monahan’s rebound goal that opened the scoring in the second period.
As I’ve noted multiple times in this space, Vatanen is by no means the sole culprit on the Devils’ blue line. Damon Severson seemed to be in another one of his funks Thursday, fighting the puck much of the night and failing to knock Flames star Johnny Gaudreau off the puck before his second-period backhand beat Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid to give Calgary a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.
“We had Severson right on (Gaudreau) — Severson and Kinkaid,” Hynes said. “We had the play covered. The puck found a way to get in the net.”
Since the Vatanen trade didn’t take and points are only going to get tougher to come by as the playoff race intensifies, it would seem to behoove Shero to try again. The Devils are 5-9-2 since their season-high five-game winning streak placed them on top of the Metro on Dec. 27. They are not on the right track.
But, as Hall noted: “We’re close. We’re not far away. And it’s not like we’re playing horribly. For some reason, in the last 10 or 20 games, we’re not finding a way to get leads and keep leads. We’re going to have to find a way to get over that hump.”
My opinion as to what Shero should do to help make that leap differs from others who cover this team. Elite players rarely find their way into the marketplace, but if one from a tanking team does, why not give up a package that includes a top prospect in the vein of 2016 12th overall selection Michael McLeod, a young NHL player on a cheap contract, plus a future first-round pick to get it?
If Shero sees that the Devils are knocking at the playoff door, he should go for it. You never know what can happen next year. What if Hall gets hurt? Then you’re set back for another season, after which certain core veterans will need to be replaced and others will require significant raises.
And, before you know it, you’ll be just like the Islanders.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1