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Rangers look for blueline help as draft deadline nears

OTTAWA, ON - APRIL 29: Erik Karlsson #65

OTTAWA, ON - APRIL 29: Erik Karlsson #65 of the Ottawa Senators skates after Derek Stepan #21 of the New York Rangers in the corner in the first period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Canadian Tire Centre on April 29, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images / Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo

With an NHL trade freeze beginning Saturday at 3 p.m. — the same day lists of protected players for the Las Vegas expansion draft must be submitted — the Rangers are still hunting for a top-shelf, righthanded defenseman.

Some names keep coursing through the rumor mill: Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba, Colorado’s Tyson Barrie, Carolina’s Justin Faulk, and of course, unrestricted free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, the former St. Louis Blues and Capitals blueliner. Any one of them would be a great fit, with Shattenkirk being the most costly, in terms of dollars. The other three would require a swap, and the name that apparently keeps surfacing, according to two NHL sources familiar with the discussions among teams, is Rangers center Derek Stepan.

Coach Alain Vigneault has mentioned that the team wanted to acquire “a young defenseman,” but nothing is imminent.

Even if no matches can be found by the time the hockey world gathers for the annual entry draft in Chicago on Thursday, trades can and will be made at the United Center, because teams will know more about their rosters following the Vegas draft.

Remember, the Rangers traded Cam Talbot and Carl Hagelin and acquired Antti Raanta at the 2015 draft and began working on the Mika Zibanejad-Derick Brassard swap at this point last season.

Stepan, who turns 27 on Sunday, has four seasons remaining on his contract with a $6.5-million annual salary cap charge. He also has a full no-trade clause that kicks in for two years on July 1, followed by a modified no-trade clause in which Stepan lists 15 teams to which he cannot be traded. So Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton doesn’t have much time if those are a factor.

But shipping out Stepan — a righty pivot who has been valuable on special teams, has scored between 53 and 57 points for the past four seasons and is one of the team’s top defensive forwards — is a tough, risky decision. Without getting a center back, it leaves Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg — if he is not selected by the Golden Knights — as the top three down the middle.

The Blueshirts are expected to use the 7-3-1 option and protect the following players in lists submitted Saturday: Forwards Rick Nash (who has a no-move clause), Zibanejad, Stepan, J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and Hayes; defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal (NMC) and Nick Holden, and Henrik Lundqvist (NMC). Only one goalie can be protected, so Raanta will be exposed, unless there’s a side deal in place for Vegas to choose someone else. Three other valuable players who will be exposed are Lindberg, Michael Grabner, and Jesper Fast.

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