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SportsColumnistsSteve Zipay

Expect Rangers to have bumpy ride on the road to playoffs

General manager Jeff Gorton will have difficult decisions to make as the Blueshirts try to climb in a tough Metropolitan Division.

Filip Chytil of the Rangers skates against the Colorado

Filip Chytil of the Rangers skates against the Colorado Avalanche at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, the Rangers are running as fast as possible, yet impossibly remaining in the same place.

For the Blueshirts, that’s just outside the playoff picture — although there are still more than 50 games to play.

But this edition of the Rangers, which spent a long time waiting on the runway before taking off last month, is likely in for a bumpy flight to unknown territory.

After all, the Rangers have qualified for the postseason each of the last seven years, but the Metropolitan Division has formidable teams who are winning regularly, forcing the Blueshirts to keep pace.

It’s possible that both Eastern Conference wild cards will come from the tough Metropolitan Division, meaning five teams, a scenario that some (including yours truly) predicted here before the pucks dropped in October.

That makes things very tricky for general manager Jeff Gorton. A new twist was added last week when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman projected that the salary cap will settle between $78 million and $82 million in 2018-19 — a notable rise from the current $75 million.

Whatever extra space is available next summer, you can bet that Gorton will use as much as possible and leave a little cushion. That’s been his M.O. The interesting part — and the difficult decisions — will come long before that. It’s a delicate balance. Depending on where the Rangers are at the midway point of the season, Gorton has to weigh the present and future more than ever.

Consider:

Call it unlikely that Gorton — rebuilding or not — swings a deal for restricted free agents Brady Skjei, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller or Jimmy Vesey — all currently between 23 and 25 — so he’ll pay more to keep them. That extra cap space will come in quite handy.

The Rangers also have eight players who currently are age 30 or older and five of them will be unrestricted free agents next season: Rick Nash, 33; David Desharnais, 31 and Nick Holden, Michael Grabner and Ondrej Pavelec, all 30. It’s not going out on a limb to assume they all won’t be on Broadway next season, and could be moved by the trade deadline.

Henrik Lundqvist, 35, and Mats Zuccarello and Marc Staal, both 30, are all under contract. It will be costly to buy out Staal (with a $5.7 million annual cap charge for three years after this season), a year after cutting ties with Dan Girardi.

Let’s presume the Rangers are still on the playoff bubble. Does Gorton try to push the envelope by dealing for another defenseman or a top-nine forward? Or does he decide to give first-round draft pick Filip Chytil or Vinny Letteri, currently in Hartford, an opportunity up front? Young legs often add some energy, some spark. Does defenseman Neal Pionk get a look? Will No. 7 overall pick Lias Andersson be ready for the big time next September after spending this season in Sweden?

Speaking of spending money, what about the free-agent market? To be honest, after the top ten, it seems pretty weak and overpriced.

Outside of John Carlson, the Capitals righthanded defenseman who appears to be this year’s free-agent version of Kevin Shattenkirk, there’s no other prized blueliner coming to market next summer. And Gorton already went that route last July, reeling in Shattenkirk, a New Rochelle native who took a hometown discount because he wanted to play for the team he grew up rooting for.

One option for the Rangers, and there was interest last summer, is Ilya Kovalchuk, the right wing who’s still lighting it up in the KHL. A two-year deal, perhaps? Maybe defenseman Calvin de Haan, the Islander who avoided arbitration with a one-year deal? He’ll be 27 next summer. Too bad he’s not a righty.

In the meantime, the Rangers keep running. As Alice says to the Red Queen, still panting from running beside her: “Well, in our country, you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

NAME THAT TEAM

With an arena deal in hand, Seattle has been asked by the NHL to submit a plan for an expansion team.

My Top 10 Proposed Team Names: The Seattle . . .

Baristas

Pilots 2.0

Deluge

Grunge

Nirvana

Swingin’ Salmon

Techies

Blue Herons

Blue Umbrellas

Reign

HEARD AND SEEN

Igor Shestyorkin, the 21-year-old who many observers hope can eventually replace Lundqvist, has been selected for the 2018 KHL All-Star Game. He is 16-1-3, with a 1.57 GAA and .941 save percentage for St. Petersburg SKA . . . When Columbus forward Artemi Panarin had five primary assists Friday against the Devils, he became the last player to do so since Brian Leetch in 1995.

FREE SPIRITS

Rangers’ restricted free agents after this season and their current salary:

J.T. Miller $2.75M

Kevin Hayes $2.60M

Brady Skjei $925,000

Jimmy Vesey $925,000

Unrestricted free agents after this season:

Rick Nash $7.8M

Michael Grabner $1.65M

Nick Holden $1.65M

Ondrej Pavelec $1.3M

David Desharnais $1M

New York Sports