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Who will Rangers expose to expansion draft this summer?

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton looks on at

Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton looks on at a press conference to introduce John Davidson at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Are they going the make the playoffs?

It’s the first question — the only question, really — casual observers ask about the Rangers, who have 12 games left in the regular season after Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Devils at Madison Square Garden.

The arithmetic says yes, it is absolutely still possible for the Blueshirts to catch the Boston Bruins for the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division. But the same math makes it clear the odds are not in their favor.

Which is actually a good thing, if you’re general manager Jeff Gorton.

 

Putting the young players currently on the roster into high-pressure, must-win games every night can only help speed up their development, which is, of course, huge as far as building a battle-tested core for the near future.

But seeing how all the players — young and not so young — perform in these final dozen games will be key, too, because management has some decisions to make.

The rebuild almost literally could not have gone any better to this point, and whether the Rangers make the playoffs or not this year, the season will still be a success if management feels the young players made significant progress and the team got a step closer to being a legit Stanley Cup contender in the next couple years.

But missing the playoffs next year will not be OK. The Rangers will need to get to the postseason in 2021-22, period. Next year is the year they are going to need to announce to the rest of the league that they are here, and will be a threat for years to come.

And so Gorton, associate GM Chris Drury, team president John Davidson and the rest of the management team are going to have to figure out exactly how, and where, to upgrade the roster over the summer.

They’ll have some cap space to make additions, but they have to get it right. And seeing how the players on the current roster perform in this playoff push will provide crucial data to help in their decision-making.

First things first, there is an expansion draft coming up this summer, and the Rangers will lose one player off the roster to the incoming Seattle Kraken. Most of the work on drawing up the protected list for the draft is already done, of course, but there could be a couple of last-minute changes.

First- and second-year professionals are exempt from the draft, and teams will get to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie — or eight skaters and a goalie. The Rangers will go the 7-3-1 route, and realistically, six of the seven forwards who need to be protected are no-brainers: Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil.

There’s some wiggle room on who the seventh forward should be, though. Should they protect 23-year-old Brett Howden, who has16 career goals in 171 games (including just one empty-netter in 34 games this season)? Or is 28-year-old Colin Blackwell, who had 12 goals this season — and 15 goals in 68 career NHL games — the real thing, and not a flash in the pan? Blackwell, who bounced around the minor leagues before signing with the Rangers as a free agent last October, almost seems too good to be true. Is he?

With Tony DeAngelo’s banishment from the team on Feb. 1, the three defensemen that need to be protected seem pretty straightforward: Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek. Brendan Smith’s contract expires at the end of this season, making him a free agent, and thus, exempt.

But the goalie? With Igor Shesterkin exempt, it had been generally assumed the Rangers would protect Alexandar Georgiev. But if Shesterkin has proven this season that he’s the man, and will hold up physically and mentally, for, say, 65 or so starts in a normal season, then perhaps 31-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who’s signed for next season at a cap hit of $825,000, can serve capably as his backup. So maybe the Rangers could be safe exposing the 25-year-old Georgiev, who carries a cap hit of $2.425 million, instead of Kinkaid.

And what of Zibanejad, who turns 28 on Sunday, and whose 15 goals in 44 games are a major comedown from last season, when he had 41 in 57 games? Does management proceed as if Zibanejad is the guy he was in 2019-20, and write off his slow start this season (one goal, two assists in the first 15 games) to his having had COVID-19 in training camp?

If so, then Gorton’s priority this summer would be to add someone to supplement Zibanejad, like maybe a big, two-way center who can win faceoffs and score some key goals in a second-or third-line role.

But if management thinks Zibanejad is closer to the 30-goal, 74-point player he was in 2018-19, do they instead go all out to bring in an elite No. 1 center, and trade a bunch of prospects to Buffalo for Jack Eichel?

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