Deadline Dilemma

There was nothing on Monday to help ease the devastating feeling of Sunday’s gold-medal defeat. On Monday, the Knicks allowed 74 first-half points to the Cavaliers in an eventual 31-point loss … Alex Rodriguez was linked to some sketchy doctor and needed for an FBI investigation … Jay Leno made his Tonight Show comeback in place of Conan O’Brien … Sadly, Jimmy Fallon still had his spot hosting Late Night … and I don’t even watch The Bachelor, but apparently he ruined the season finale by choosing the wrong girl. As if Sidney Crosby finding Ryan Miller’s five-hole seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime wasn’t bad enough, the events of Monday just poured salt into the wound that Sid the Kid had opened the day before. On Tuesday, however, the gold-medal loss began to hurt a little less.

On Tuesday, the Yankees had their annual team outing, which resembled a 12-year-old’s birthday party, meaning it was the eve of the team’s spring training opener. And the tri-state area hockey teams resumed play after a two-week layoff, going undefeated on the eve of the NHL’s trade deadline.

The Rangers began a stretch of 20 games in 42 days by scoring four goals in a win against the Senators without Marian Gaborik. The Islanders helped improve their chances in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with a 5-3 win over the Blackhawks on the Island. And the Devils held off the West’s best in San Jose with a 4-3 victory against the Sharks.

With Wednesday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline looming, it was the last chance for teams to decide whether they would be buyers or sellers, even though the local teams have pretty much cemented their roles for the rest of the 2009-10 season.

The Devils are built to win now and they know it, as does the entire hockey world. Lou Lamoriello sees a team with several key players in their mid-30s and a franchise goalie who is nearing 40. It’s why he went against his own philosophy and the culture he instituted in New Jersey to acquire Ilya Kovalchuk in a deal that cost him Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, a first-round pick in 2010 and a second-round pick in 2010. The Devils’ window of opportunity is slowly closing and this year might be one of the last chances the organization has to capitalize on the Brodeur Era. Lamoriello knows what he has and he is going for it all this season, even knowing that Kovalchuk’s time in New Jersey might only last through the team’s last game this season.

The Islanders, on the other hand, are built for the future. With a strong core of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, the Islanders aren’t about to sacrifice the talented youth they have lacked since the lockout for a 19-game boost that will land them a matchup with the Capitals in the first round. The Islanders have been a pleasant surprise this season with a team of mostly 20-somethings, managing to stay in the thick of things in the playoff race. If the Islanders can find a way into the playoffs, they will have exceeded all expectations and completed an unlikely turnaround after finishing with a league-worst 61 points last year. And if they fall short of the playoffs, no one will be disappointed since they weren’t expected to achieve this much success this season anyways. The Islanders know where they stand in the Eastern Conference and what they will be able to achieve in the near future with their abundance of young talent.

That brings us to the Rangers. They aren’t really ready to win now, and they aren’t built for the future and don’t appear to be building for the future. They remain in the same spot they have been in for the past five seasons – good enough to make the postseason but not good enough to win in the postseason. There is a good mix of young and old on the Rangers, but to say the Rangers are a team capable of going the distance, well, it would be wishful thinking. Tuesday’s win over the Senators only added more confusion in the search to find out who the Rangers are, because no one – Glen Sather included – knows what to expect from the Rangers or when to expect to it.

Right now the Rangers are either …

Team A: A team that has won three straight, is peaking at the right time and is primed for the stretch run after finally realizing its potential after five months of inconsistent play.

Or …

Team B: A team that has won three straight, but a team that picked the wrong night to play above its head and in turn, only masked its offensive problems.

If the Rangers are “Team A” and have actually found the rhythm that all of New York has waited for them to find, then there is no need to alter the roster or change the team’s current landscape. If Glen Sather thinks that the team he saw smoke the Senators on Tuesday is the team that will come to play for the remainder of the year, then he doesn’t need to tinker with the team’s current makeup.

But if the Rangers are “Team B,” then they picked the wrong night to play like a team built to win this season since there aren’t any games remaining before the deadline for the Blueshirts to show their true colors. Sather needs to know if Tuesday’s win was false hope or a sign of things to come. He needs to know if the Rangers can make a run the rest of the way as currently constructed, and he needs to decide quickly.

Had the Rangers laid an egg in Ottawa and started the stretch run off with a weak effort, it would have been easy to say that without Gaborik the Rangers are a disaster, and it would have made it easy for Sather to make some sort of move on Wednesday to shake up the roster. Instead, the Rangers took it to the Senators without their leading scorer, and no one knows if this team is OK without Gaborik and a contender with him. No one knows whether or not this team should go forward as is, or if change is needed.

In all likelihood, Sather will stand pat at the deadline, and I’m not sure that isn’t the right move. I’m also not sure it is. I’m not really sure what to make of the Rangers’ situation or what to expect of them over the next six weeks. I’m not sure that there is a move that can be made at this point that will take the Rangers to the next level and get them through March and April and beyond. And even if a move of that caliber exists and Sather makes it, there is no guarantee that he will be able to justify it in the postseason since the Rangers are currently on the outside looking in.

If Sather has been able to maintain his position with the Rangers to this point, it’s safe to say that there isn’t a trade he can make or pass up that will cost him his job. There isn’t a level of success the Rangers need to achieve or a playoff round they need to reach for him to remain general manager.

Sather put the Rangers into this awkward position of being a perennial five through eight seed in the Eastern Conference, and it should be on him to get them out of their five-year funk. Just don’t count on it happening by 3 p.m. because at 3:01 p.m., chances are the Rangers won’t be a team built to win now or a team built for the future. They will still just be the same old Rangers. Who that is, I’m not sure?