With the NHL trade deadline just 10 days away, the annual carousel of speculation is spinning.
Given the makeup of the Rangers, the best way to improve their chances of contending for the Stanley Cup this season is to juice up their lineup with a dynamic righthanded defenseman and some jam upfront for the grind of the playoffs.
Let’s be perfectly clear: The former will be costly and awfully difficult to find, unless the St. Louis Blues lower their asking price on Kevin Shattenkirk, who can drive a power play from the point — an asset the Rangers need — and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Players such as Shattenkirk, a New Rochelle native, aren’t on the market often, but the Blueshirts might be forced to make a play for him in July.
The Blues are looking for the sun and the moon at this point and why not? Under new coach Mike Yeo, and with Shattenkirk on board (11-31-42 in 58 games), the Blues could be on track for a deep playoff run.
One caveat: Shattenkirk won’t be affordable for the Blues next season and beyond, and lost veterans David Backes and Troy Brouwer, also unrestricted free agents last season, for nothing. They have to consider that Shattenkirk, 28, may very well be a rental for some contenders and will then seek a lucrative, multi-year contract of more than $6 million per season, and will lower their ask of a No. 1 draft pick, a regular young defenseman and a top prospect.
Nonetheless, with forward depth and some cap room, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton can strengthen the roster, and certainly is exploring deals. A swap with a Western Conference club that isn’t on track for the playoffs seems the strongest possibility.
We’ll get to that, but first consider this: Unlike recent trade deadlines, there are X-factors this March 1.
* Only a few Western teams — Colorado, Arizona, Dallas---seem ready to move big names. But a boatload of teams have unrestricted free agents.
* The upcoming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights requires extra strategy. By June 17th, teams have to submit a list of players to protect: seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goalie. Players with no-movement clauses (unless they waive them) have to be protected; first-and-second year pros are exempt. That makes roster decisions, and planning for 2017-18 for almost everybody a little trickier.
* Managing dollars. The salary cap, currently $73 million, may be flat, or barely rise, next season.
* First-rounders available in this year’s entry draft don’t seem as highly regarded as they were the few last years. Two centers, Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier, according to scouts, are top-tier players. After that, it’s projected as a somewhat weak class. So will teams be less reluctant to offer a No. 1?
But back to potential targets for the Rangers. Regarding depth on the blue line: Arizona’s Michael Stone will be an unrestricted free agent, as will the Red Wings’ Brendan Smith, Carolina’s Ron Hainsey, Buffalo’s Cody Franson and Toronto’s Roman Polak.
The Ducks and Hurricanes have a surplus of defensemen and prospects, including Anaheim’s Brandon Montour, Josh Manson and Shea Theodore and Carolina’s Ryan Murphy. The Blueshirts have depth upfront (Brandon Pirri, Oscar Lindberg, Matt Puempel, Nick Jensen, Ryan Gropp), some goalie prospects (Brandon Halverson, Adam Huska) and an extra 2018 second-round draft pick to dangle (from Ottawa in the Derick Brassard-Mika Zibanejad trade). Could there be a match?
Teams eyeing the Rangers want their talented younger players: J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Zibanejad, Brady Skjei, Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey. And why not? Could Gorton somehow pry away a skilled defenseman — Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez from the Kings, Ryan Ellis from Nashville, or Tyson Barrie from the Avalanche — without surrendering a huge package? Doubtful.
As for expansion, right now, the Rangers would have to protect Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi (all with no-move clauses), and presumably would not expose Miller, Hayes, Derek Stepan, Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider. Skjei, Vesey and Buchnevich are exempt. Who must be exposed? Right now, leading goal-scorer Michael Grabner, Antti Raanta, Kevin Klein, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast and Nick Holden. However, each team can only lose one player to the Knights.
Gorton, in his third season as general manager, hasn’t said anything publicly about trades, but hasn’t been averse to change and could surprise. Might be another interesting deadline.
Kevin Shattenkirk. Blues, right-handed defenseman, 28, unrestricted free agent. Points: 11-31-42.
Michael Stone. Coyotes, right-handed defenseman, 26, unrestricted, 1-8-9 in 43 games.
Ryan Murphy. Hurricanes, right-handed defenseman, 23, $787,500 due in 2017-18, 0-2-2 in 11 games.
Brian Boyle, Lightning, center, 32, unrestricted, 13-7-20 in 50 games.
Brendan Smith. Red Wings, left-handed defenseman, 28, unrestricted, 2-3-5 in 30 games.
Roman Polak. Maple Leafs, right-handed defenseman, 30, unrestricted, 3-3-6 in 51.
Alexandre Burrows, Canucks, left wing, 35, unrestricted, 9-11-20 in 52.
Ron Hainsey. Hurricanes, left-handed defenseman, 35, unrestricted, 4-10-14 in 58 games.
Cody Franson, Sabres, right-handed defenseman, 29, unrestricted, 3-13-16 in 51 games.
Dennis Wideman , Flames, right-handed defenseman, 33, unrestricted, 3-13-16 in 51 games.
Martin Hanzal, Coyotes, center, 29, unrestricted, 14-9-23 in 47 games.
Johnny Oduya, Stars, left-handed defenseman, 35, unrestricted. Points: 1-6-7 in 36 games.
RANGERS’ RECENT DEADLINE DEALS
The Rangers rolled the dice and have come close, but haven’t struck gold when it comes to shipping out assets for a player that they believe could help put them over the top.
Acquired center Erik Staal from Carolina
For a second-round pick in 2016 and 2017 and Finnish prospect Aleksi Saarela. The Penguins beat the Rangers in five games in the opening round of the playoffs.
Acquired defenseman Keith Yandle, defenseman Chris Summers and a 2016 fourth-round pick from Arizona
For prospect Anthony Duclair, John Moore, a 2016 first-round pick and a 2015 second-round pick. The Blueshirts beat the Penguins in the first round, the Capitals in the second, and lost in seven games to Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final.
Acquired winger Martin St. Louis from Tampa
For Ryan Callahan, a first-round pick in 2015 and a second-round pick in 2014. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994.
Acquired center Derek Brassard, winger Derek Dorsett, defenseman John Moore and Columbus’ 6th-round draft pick in 2014
For winger Marian Gaborik and defensemen Blake Parlett and Steven Delisle. They beat the Capitals in the first round of playoffs, then lost to the Bruins in five in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.