Sunday’s game against the Islanders was their last before Monday’s NHL trade deadline, but inside the Rangers' dressing room, there hasn’t been that air of anticipation – or dread – that might have been there in past seasons.
"I think everybody's just more worried about our position that we're in (in the playoff chase), and trying to get points,’’ forward Brett Howden said Sunday morning of the team’s mood approaching the deadline. "Especially with playing games every other night, there's really no time to be thinking about anything else.’’
Considering where they are in their rebuild process, this year’s trade deadline figures to be quieter than the past few years. They are the youngest team in the league, with 10 players on the roster 23 years old or younger – including five who are 21 or younger – and yet they entered Sunday’s game five points behind fourth place Boston in the East Division. So, it would be difficult to see them trading away players currently on the roster who are integral to their playoff chase.
Could they add help for the final 15 games of the season? It’s possible, but they don’t have the space under the salary cap to add much at the deadline. And besides, anybody they added now would only complicate the task of making sure the young prospects they are developing this season get the ice time they need.
The consensus opinion is that general manager Jeff Gorton is more likely to wait until the offseason to upgrade the roster, when just under $9 million of dead money from the Kevin Shattenkirk and Henrik Lundqvist buyouts come off their salary cap.
There was a time, earlier in the season, when trading forwards Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome before the deadline might have seemed to make some sense. Moving either player would have cleared some salary, opened up ice time for some of the organization’s young prospects, and brought back a decent return.
But Strome entered Sunday tied with Adam Fox for the second-most points (37) on the team, and Buchnevich, who will turn 26 on April 17, was right behind them, with 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists). Both now look more like players the Rangers might want to keep.
Which doesn’t mean Gorton won’t make some kind of trade before the 3 p.m. deadline, of course. Last year, with the Rangers battling to get into the playoffs, the team made the decision to hold on to both Chris Kreider (who signed a long-term extension) and Jesper Fast and try and chase a playoff spot. But Gorton surprisingly traded Brady Skjei, one of his top four defensemen, to the Carolina Hurricanes at the deadline. The trade created cap space to re-sign restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo in the offseason, but it also opened a spot in the top four that rookie K’Andre Miller has filled nicely this season.
So, if Gorton can get a worthwhile return for someone like veteran defenseman Brendan Smith, an unrestricted free agent this summer who has a modified no-trade clause, or surprising forward Colin Blackwell (12 goals entering Sunday’s game), he might do that.
Moving Smith could open a spot for Tarmo Reunanen, the top scoring defenseman on the Rangers’ Hartford farm team, to get some minutes this season. Moving Blackwell might open a spot for someone like Julien Gauthier, who was a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game Sunday, or perhaps Morgan Barron, Hartford’s leading scorer.
But trading away guys like Smith and Blackwell would work against the Rangers’ chances of making the playoffs. The odds may be against them getting, but the players are fighting hard to try and beat those odds. Holding on to useful players who can help the cause now may make more sense than picking up a couple extra middle-round draft picks.