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SportsColumnistsColin Stephenson

Rangers faced with tough decisions as trade deadline nears

Chris Kreider #20 of the Rangers celebrates his

Chris Kreider #20 of the Rangers celebrates his goal late in the third period against the Islanders at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The NHL trade deadline (Feb. 24) is five weeks away.

Entering Sunday’s matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets and old friend John Tortorella, the Rangers have won four of five games, but a few of the players who are helping to drive their playoff push might not be here on Feb. 25.

Team president John Davidson said last week that the Rangers need to be flexible and able to shift from buyer to seller or vice versa in an instant.

If they decide to buy, it’s possible they could hold on to impending unrestricted free agent Chris Kreider, who’s been assumed all season to be a goner at the deadline. Given what he figures to command on the open market (presumably in the seven-year, $7 million per year range), it’s been thought likely that the Rangers would not have enough cap room to re-sign him. Thus, they’d have no choice but to trade him at the deadline, as they did Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes last season.

But a year ago, the Rangers weren’t close to making the playoffs, so shipping out Zuccarello and Hayes was the logical play. Zuccarello went to Dallas and brought back a couple of draft picks; Hayes went to Winnipeg for Brendan Lemieux and a first-round pick that was returned to the Jets as part of the package that landed defenseman Jacob Trouba.

Kreider has been a major player for the Rangers this season, especially of late. He scored the winning goal on the power play with 26 seconds left in Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Islanders and has 16 goals and 31 points in 46 games. So if the Rangers are in a legitimate battle to get into the playoffs — and what could be better for the development of young players than being in a playoff race and playing big games down the stretch? — how could they trade away that kind of power forward and leader?

It’s true that maybe the Rangers won’t be able to afford the cost of re-signing the 28-year-old winger in the summer, what with all the dead money they’ll be carrying on their salary cap next season and all the free agents they are going to have to sign.

Jesper Fast also is an unrestricted free agent and Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo, Lemieux and goaltender Alexandar Georgiev are restricted free agents with arbitration rights, meaning they’re all going to get significant raises.

With Strome, DeAngelo and Fast all having career years and with CapFriendly projecting that the Rangers will have roughly $15.6 million in available cap space next season, there’s no way they’ll be able to bring all of them back.

That means decisions will have to be made about whom to sign and whom to let go.

Georgiev, the man caught in the middle of the three-goalie conundrum the Rangers are in right now, certainly could be traded before the deadline, though the Rangers won’t give him away. But what about the others?

With Adam Fox already on the roster and Joey Keane performing at an AHL All-Star level for Hartford, would the Rangers be willing to cash in on DeAngelo (12 goals, 25 assists in 46 games) and deal him for a big-time return? Or is DeAngelo a keeper and Keane a chip to be used at the deadline if the Rangers are buyers?

Strome has formed an undeniable chemistry with Artemi Panarin and is on track to post career highs in goals, assists and points this season. So does general manager Jeff Gorton keep Strome, or do the Rangers trade Kreider, move Panarin to Mika Zibanejad’s line, trade Strome and bump the surging Filip Chytil up to the second line?

Maybe the way to look at it is this: Keeping Kreider and the rest for the balance of the season would be the equivalent of acquiring a rental player (or players) for the playoff push.

It’s understood that the Rangers won’t be able to keep everybody going into next season. But if keeping them all for the rest of this season gives them a chance to make the playoffs, that might be a chance worth taking.

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