For every team, there comes a moment after the trade deadline where you exhale and say, “So this is the group with which we will go to do battle.”
Sometimes that’s a gung-ho thought, that you are loaded and ready for the grueling two-month Stanley Cup tournament.
Sometimes it’s a white towel, that we’ve sold off and now a playoff spot might be out of reach, let alone any hope to make noise in April, May or June.
And sometimes it’s a wait and see: Are we better off today? Are we on a level with the teams we’re likely to face in the first or second round?
I think the Rangers are in that third group. This is their team after no blockbusting trades at the NHL deadline Wednesday, no major splash for the first time in years.
I think the Rangers, as constituted – and assuming the sudden spate of injuries isn’t much of a factor at the end of the regular season, which has 19 games remaining, starting in Boston Thursday – are right there.
If you’re talking top six or seven teams in the whole league, they’re in that group. If you’re talking top three or so? Maybe not. But they could well be first among the rest. And it would be crazy to say there’s a team they couldn’t possibly beat in a series.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, prior to the deadline, repeatedly said “I like our team” and he should. That doesn’t mean that Rangers GM Jeff Gorton didn’t burn up his phone plan trying to improve the roster, starting with the attempt to acquire New Rochelle native and puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Shattenkirk ultimately went to Washington for a steep price (a top prospect and a first-round draft pick, among other conditional picks) and Gorton smartly passed. The Rangers would love to have Shattenkirk, and he would love to play his home games at The Garden – he grew up idolizing Brian Leetch – but he will be an unrestricted free agent July 1 and the Rangers will have their shot, if they are willing to meet the ransom of a contract he will demand at that time.
We don’t know what St. Louis asked from the Rangers, but we can assume it was a first-rounder, a top prospect (maybe Pavel Buchnevich or Brady Skjei) and more picks. In other words, too much for a rental.
“A good player like that, he has to go somewhere,” Gorton said. “I kind of expected it would be one or two teams, if it wasn’t going to be us. It sort of went the way we thought it would. When you want a player, you do what you can to get a player and I am sure that is what Washington felt they had to do.
“We had conversations and at some point, we decided it wasn’t in our best interest to go forward.”
Gorton did make what could turn out to be a significant move, obtaining (renting) defenseman Brendan Smith from Detroit.
Smith, 28, is a defensive defenseman with a bit of a snarl who, Vigneault believes, makes a good first pass – critical in Vigneault’s puck-moving system. He played at Wisconsin with Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh, with whom he will likely begin his Rangers tenure on the first defense pair. Smith is a left-hander who can play either side and in advanced stats terms, is a “shot suppressor.”
“He competes,” Vigneault said, “He competes real hard, and we’re going to need that.”
Indeed, the Girardi and Klein injuries are two of a spate that has hit the Rangers at a bad time (or, you could theorize, a good time with the team comfortably in a playoff spot and still six weeks to recover before the playoffs).
The Rangers, coming off consecutive losses after going 9-1-1 in their previous 11 games, remain in a tight race with Pittsburgh and Columbus for second and third, behind Washington, in the best division in the NHL, the Metro. Of course, finishing fourth should earn a cross-over to the less-challenging Atlantic Division bracket for the first two playoff rounds.
Forwards Jesper Fast (out two-to-three weeks) and Mika Zibanejad (day-to-day) also went down this past week, so the Rangers’ depth, which was not addressed up front at the deadline, and which was their strength for most of the season, will be tested in the meantime.
“The market in general, if you want a player in this market, generally you are going to overpay and that is the way it is if you look at all the trades,” Gorton said.
Again, kudos to Gorton for not panicking and moving prospects or more draft picks (overpaying) to add to that depth, to trust the roster that he built, which has gotten the 40-21-2 Rangers this far.
And, which will be the group with which they go to battle.