Steve Zipay Newsday columnist Steve Zipay

Steve Zipay is an award-winning journalist who has covered events from Super Bowls to World Series and issues

Could there be only 32 regular-season games -- and perhaps some playoff games -- left in Ryan Callahan's career as a Ranger?

That's the question under the surface as the Rangers brace for another run to a possible post-season berth.

The right wing, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2004 and has been the flag-bearer of a team-first, grit-and-grind style for 438 games in a Rangers jersey, is an unrestricted free agent in June.

So the Broadway Brass has a weighty decision: Call it the Callahan conundrum.

The guy has been all-in, even before he was named captain in September 2011. That's why he was given the "C". He knows no other way.

But Callahan turns 29 in March, and his play has produced a litany of injuries, most recently offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, a broken thumb in October and a sprained MCL in early December.

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Going back to 2010, you'll recall a broken left hand, and that broken right ankle in 2011 from blocking shots.

When he is healthy, Callahan is a skilled, passionate engine. As he plays on, however, does the risk of potential breakdowns and more missed games outweigh matching a possible six-year deal worth $6 million-plus per season that might be dangled out there?

The sides have spoken, but without any serious negotiations at this point.

Callahan, who will wear Team USA's Winter Olympics jersey for the second time in February, is earning $4.825 million this season, his final one on a three-year, $12.825-million pact signed in 2011. That was the same year that management gave Brandon Dubinsky $16.8 million for four years.

If there is any lingering resentment, you won't hear it publicly from the Rochester native, who deserves more dollars for his sweat, stitches and scoring.

But if Glen Sather & Co. eventually offer, say, a four-year deal, Callahan and his representatives could try to drive that term longer, perhaps to take him to age 35. Then it's crunch time; Sather might dig in, even if Callahan is reluctant to leave.

Face it: A long-term, secure deal could be Callahan's swan song, and given the number of clubs who will have big bucks to spend this summer with the salary cap rising, the market is appetizing.

According to projections, 14 teams will have more than $23 million in cap space. The Rangers will have $31 million. Buffalo will have $41 million.

You think Pat LaFontaine and the Sabres wouldn't love to have an upstate hero come home?

What about the Ducks, who will need to replace Teemu Selanne?

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How about the Red Wings putting Callahan with either Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg?

Think John Tortorella might find some room for a former heart-and-soul guy out on the Pacific Coast?

Tough call for everyone involved.

Heard around . . .

SIf Ryan Callahan is elsewhere next season, who would be the Rangers' 27th captain? The only player on the current roster with previous experience in the role is Rick Nash, who captained the Blue Jackets from 2008 until he was traded here. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist? Doubtful. When Alain Vigneault was in Vancouver, Roberto Luongo's term lasted two seasons before he resigned . . . Scouts are earning their keep between now and the March 5 trade deadline. At MSG on Thursday were reps from Toronto, Washington, Carolina, Phoenix and Anaheim, and those numbers will increase . . . The Hartford Wolf Pack has collapsed. At 11-20-5, it is in 15th place, dead last in the East. October went swimmingly at 7-2-1, but the club has missed Cam Talbot, the goaltending has been shuffled constantly and the Wolf Pack has scored the fewest goals in the league.

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Hardly superstitious

Left wing Daniel Carcillo is the seventh Ranger to wear No. 13. The thers:

Jack Stoddard, RW, 1951-52, 1952-53 (80 regular-season games)

Bob Brooke, C, 1983-87 (175 games)

Sergei Nemchinov, C, 1991-97 (418 games)

Valeri Kamensky, LW, 1999-2001 (123 games)

Richard Scott, RW, 2001-02, 2003-04 (10 games)

Nikolai Zherdev, RW, 2008-09 (82 games)