The vibe had been palpable in certain corners of the locker room. Leading up to the NHL’s annual trade deadline in other seasons in the past decade, there was a sense of impending change among the Rangers.
Veteran players who were on the cusp of unrestricted free agency — and therefore possibly on the move — asked writers what they had heard from agents or in the rumor mill. They spoke privately about hoping not to be shipped to a mid-tier Western Conference team — with much more demanding travel — and farther from home.
Of course, decisions often depend on individual contracts. Without a no-move clause or a limited no-trade clause with a list of teams to which a player couldn’t be dealt, factors that have become much more prevalent, a player and his representatives had no say over his destination.
Stalemated in a contract dispute, popular captain Ryan Callahan was dealt to Tampa Bay for Martin St. Louis in early March 2014.
A player’s relationship with the head coach could tip the scales. Remember sniper Marian Gaborik, who was in and out of John Tortorella’s doghouse and was shipped to Columbus in April 2013?
“Definitely [players] are more worried [if the team is slumping],” said Henrik Lundqvist, in his 12th season with the team. “There’s been years when you feel the tension.”
Concerns increase if a team is slumping, which isn’t the case for the Rangers, who are 9-1-1 in their last 11 after Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win over the Devils.
“Now I think we’re in a good place. We believe in each other and the system,” Lundqvist said. “It’s out of our control, so you try not to think about it, but when I think about other years, yeah, it was there. Now [the talk] is more focused on what we need to do on the ice, not what’s going on off the ice. If something happens, it happens. But it’s a good thing when things are going well.”
Lundqvist’s perception seems accurate. There’s no overarching sense of worry, although some players will quietly be relieved when the deadline passes at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
“It seems like it hasn’t been a big distraction for our group this year,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “Maybe it’s because we’ve been playing so many games; playing every other day helps take your mind off things. We’ve got good character, that’s a good sign. We’ve got confidence in ourselves regardless of whether there’s a change made or not.”
A few players are untouchable, such as Lundqvist and McDonagh, who have no-move and no-trade clauses. Consider this: Not one of the 23 players on the roster is due to be an unrestricted free agent in June. But five players — Rick Nash, leading goal-scorer Michael Grabner, defensemen Kevin Klein and Nick Holden and goaltender Antti Raanta — have contracts due to expire after next season.
Six players remain under team control as restricted free agents in June: Mika Zibanejad (who is 23 and was acquired in the Derick Brassard trade to Ottawa and is highly unlikely to be traded), Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, Matt Puempel, Oscar Lindberg and Adam Clendening. All of the above may appeal to suitors who wouldn’t be tied into long-term deals, but it is believed that Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton would rather not part with key roster assets and would rather trade draft picks or prospects.
Coach Alain Vigneault, who also coached in Vancouver and Montreal and certainly knows that teams can be upgraded with certain moves, is saying the right things.
“Right now, I like my team,” Vigneault said. “I like the way the guys prepare and their work ethic and how they compete. Jeff and I communicate every day on our team and obviously our needs . . . He knows my opinion on our group and if there are areas we can improve. He’s known that for quite some time. I’m happy with what we have here. I think we’ve got a good team, a good, young group that’s hungry, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
Two defensemen from last Sunday’s list of potential Rangers trade targets have moved on: Michael Stone (Arizona to Calgary) and Ron Hainsey (Carolina to Pittsburgh), but Detroit’s Brendan Smith and St. Louis’ Kevin Shattenkirk remain viable candidates. It is widely assumed that the Rangers will make an offer for Shattenkirk, 28, as a rental, with the assumption that he will sign a long-term contract. It should be noted that Shattenkirk’s representatives also have these clients: Former Rangers Dan Boyle and Nathan Gerbe as well as southern Connecticut natives Jonathan Quick (Kings) and Cam Atkinson (Blue Jackets).
HEARD AND SEEN…
With Jean Ratelle’s No. 19 to be raised to the rafters next season, it should be noted that a game-worn Ratelle jersey is part of the catalog for the winter auction of long-time Americana and sports memorabilia leader Lelands.com . . . Henrik Lundqvist is set to start today against Columbus. A victory would tie him with Martin Brodeur for the most wins in his first 12 years in NHL history. Caveat: Brodeur played 11 of those seasons before the shootout was instituted . . . Entering yesterday, the Hartford Wolf Pack had 29 losses, more than any other team in the AHL except the Rochester Americans (30). They have 16 regulation/overtime wins in 53 games. Quite a dropoff. The Wolf Pack just missed making the playoffs last season with 85 points (41-32-3).
MAKING THEIR POINT
With 82 points, will the Rangers reach the century mark? If they do, it will be the second time they have done so in three consecutive seasons and the 10th time overall.