The Rangers have won eight of 11 since their 10-day layoff and have doubled their postseason odds over the last week. While the front office has yet to make any drastic changes to the roster through trades, the team continues to make it hard for the front office to do so with their recent play. If the way the Rangers have played for the last three weeks is the way the Rangers are going to play in 2020-21, the postseason drought will be over next year.
Here are 10 thoughts on the Rangers as usual.
1. Another week of Thursday Thoughts and another week without the Rangers’ roster being really any different at the NHL level prior to the trade deadline. The only difference is the addition of forward Julien Gauthier from Carolina, who the Rangers acquired in exchange for defenseman Joey Keane. Keane was essentially blocked on the organizational depth chart, and barring injury or him turning out to be Nicklas Lidstrom, he was most likely never going to be a full-time defenseman for the Rangers. So the Rangers traded from their organizational strength and helped their organizational weakness, and Gauthier was immediately inserted into the lineup in Chicago. The Gauthier-Keane deal has been the only “real” move the Rangers have made so far, and that means between now and Monday at 3 p.m. ET, there’s going to be a lot of moving pieces on the Rangers’ roster. I have written about the players who could be moved and the endless options the Rangers have to approach this deadline over the last few weeks of Thursday Thoughts, and they all still hold true. The only Rangers who seem untouchable are Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin. (Henrik Lundqvist is untouchable because of his no-trade clause.)
2. Lundqvist was the backup again in Chicago and it’s now been more than two weeks since he last started a game on Feb. 3. I wish I could go back in time three years to show Lundqvist what the 2017-18 Rangers season would become, how miserable the 2018-19 season would be and how he would be treated in the 2019-20 season. If I could go back in time and show him all of this, there’s no way he stands firm on his decision to not waive his no-trade clause. Advanced stats still show Lundqvist is an above-average NHL goalie and would be a better starting option for most teams in the league. Lundqvist’s lack of play has been because of Shesterkin’s emergence and because if the Rangers are going to play for the future on forward and defense then they need to also in net. Aside from Lundqvist’s shutout of Detroit, his last five other starts have all come against postseason teams, so he has drawn the toughest opponents of the three goalies. When Shesterkin doesn’t play, Lundqvist should be playing. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Lundqvist should waive his no-trade if it means going to Colorado. The West is awful, the Avalanche are stacked and are a goalie short of making a run to the Cup Final with only St. Louis a threat to them. Sitting on the bench for the final seven weeks of this season and then, at best, sitting on it again next season can’t be how Lundqvist wants his career to wind down, especially since he can still play. Go to Colorado (if it’s an option), and every Rangers fan will have a team to root for in the playoffs this season.
3. Chris Kreider has been the No. 1 trade target in the entire league and that was before Tyler Toffoli came off the board. Now for a team looking for a Top 6 forward rental, Kreider is the last true option. No matter how much Kreider helps the Rangers win now and no matter how many points he has accumulated in recent weeks (and he has been doing both since the 10-day layoff), the right move is still to move him. Yes, he helps the Rangers now and will in 2020-21 and 2021-22, but who knows really how long after that. Acquiring assets in a third straight selloff is the better long-term decision rather than extending him and being in a cap crunch or buyout situation a few years from now, which the Rangers will inevitably be in given how all of their other lengthy contracts and extensions have turned out in recent years.
4. There have been reports of many teams wanting Kreider, including Boston, Colorado, St. Louis and the Islanders, and while the last option would be the least appealing, the Rangers need to make the best move for their future, regardless of what team it is. The Rangers can’t operate like the Mets, who have turned down better offers from the Yankees in order to not see their player wear pinstripes and potentially win with their city rival. Would it suck for Kreider to be an Islander? Yes, it would, though for anyone who has watched the Islanders this season, they’re not going anywhere. Kreider might help the Islanders avoid the type of monumental collapse they seem to be in the middle of and will help them reach the playoffs, but there’s no fear of watching Kreider hold the Cup above his head with blue and orange on. The Islanders need a pure goal scorer. They have since before the season, which is why they were all in on Panarin before he took less money to be a Ranger. Their lack of scoring has never been more evident than it is now as they keep on losing, having scored two goals in their last 12 periods. The Islanders would be foolish to think Kreider puts them over the top and can get them past the type of second-round defeat they suffered last season as the second round seems to be this Islanders team’s ceiling again. For Kreider, it would be convenient to stay in the metro area, and for the Rangers, they would have a chance to ruin the Islanders’ future. If the Islanders offer the best deal, the Rangers have to take it.
5. In hindsight, the win in Chicago on Wednesday was rather easy. Yes, the game was tied at 1 entering the third, and yes, the Rangers played like they did for most of the first four months of the seasons in the first two periods, but the game never felt in doubt. Five third-period goals erased any doubt as did Shesterkin’s once-again remarkable play. The Rangers’ money line for the game was +110 and I gladly took it as I have been since they returned from their 10-day layoff. I will be taking it again in Carolina on Friday.
6. Not long ago, in back-to-back seasons we nearly had a Rangers-Blackhawks Stanley Cup Final. The first season, the Blackhawks lost Game 7 in their conference finals and the next year the Rangers lost Game 7 in their conference finals. Now with the state of the Blackhawks, it looks like it will be a long, long time until both teams are contenders in the same season. It’s hard to believe how far the Blackhawks have fallen in recent seasons with back-to-back first-round exits after their most recent Cup and now a third straight season missing the playoffs. They have lost pretty much every trade they have made in the last five seasons, fired the best coach in the sport and have handed out cap-ruining contracts along the way. The Blackhawks did take advantage of their championship window as well as any team ever has, but it feels like they could have won even more than they did when they had the chance.
7. Jack O’Callahan dropping the puck for the ceremonial puck drop was awesome for a Miracle on Ice junkie like me. The most interesting part of the moment wasn’t “OC” in his Number 17 jersey back in Chicago where he was a Blackhawk, it was the exchange between Panarin and his former Blackhawk linemate Patrick Kane. Panarin tapped Kane on the shin pads upon approaching him and Kane was distracted at the time. When Kane turned his head and saw Panarin, there was a brief pause as I’m sure all the glorious moments of the two seasons Kane had Panarin on his line and what could have been had the Blackhawks kept Panarin ran through Kane’s mind. It still doesn’t make sense why the Blackhawks moved Panarin when they didn’t have to and why they moved him for Brandon Saad(!). I’m happy they did because had the Blackhawks kept Panarin, he wouldn’t be a Ranger today. For all the bad moves Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks’ front office have made since 2015, the Panarin-Saad trade is the worst.
8. The addition of Gauthier to the Rangers’ lineup created a fourth line of Gauthier, Brett Howden and Brendan Lemieux, giving the Rangers a fourth line that can actually play. The days of a fourth line featuring Greg McKegg, Micheal Haley and Brendan Smith are gone. It took basically three-quarters of the season for the Rangers to dress and play only NHL-caliber players. I think the days of the Rangers building a fourth line the way fourth lines used to be built are over. If they’re not, they need to be if this rebuild is ever going to turn into contention.
9. The Rangers returned from their 10-day layoff needing to win 75 percent of their remaining games to have a chance at the postseason. They have nearly done that so far, going 8-3 (727 winning percentage). If you divide up the Rangers’ remaining schedule into mini four-game schedules, they have to go 3-1 in each. They went 3-1 in each of the first two since the layoff and are 2-1 in their current four-game set. If they win in Carolina on Friday, they will be exactly on pace. The problem is the pace was always going to be hard to keep because playing .750 hockey for two months isn’t necessarily realistic for this Rangers roster. It’s more of something the current Tampa Bay or Boston or Washington or Colorado or St. Louis could do. It’s going to get even harder as the team if the team is dismantled as expected within the next four-plus days.
10. The Rangers are 31-24-4 with 66 points and are on pace for 92 points. The Islanders hold the second wild card and are on pace for 100 points. The Rangers have done a surprising job keeping themselves in the postseason for as long as they have, and if the team looks drastically different a week from now for the next Thursday Thoughts and returns to playing like a rebuilding team rather than a postseason team, I can say I have had a lot of fun this season watching them this season. Rangers fans can finally see the the light at the end of the tunnel which began two years ago this week with the letter from the front office.